What is the Ideal Word Count for a Novel?

Novice writers often ask what is the ideal word count for a manuscript? Is 100,000 words too many? What about 150,000? It’s best to aim lower—much lower.

Let’s say a writer is pitching a first novel. He has a sure-fire Pulitzer Prize winner on his hands, but the manuscript is a weighty 250,000 words. Does he dare mention the word count in his query letter? Not only should he not mention the word count, but he needs to go back immediately and trim that manuscript. Cut it in half or divide it into two books and pitch it as the first part of a sequel. Why? In addition to the reality that most first-time writers probably over-write, it’s a matter of simple economics. More words mean more paper, and printing and shipping costs. A publisher is simply not going to spend the extra money publishing a tome by a first-time author. Agents know this.

When I finished my first novel, Small Change, it was 126,000 words. I mentioned the word count in my query letter. Meeting with an agent once at a writer’s conference, the agent took one look at the word count and shook her head. Get it down to less than 100,000 words, she said. A word count of 80,000 would be a good target, she advised. I eventually trimmed it to 103,000 words and I self-published Small Change.

The best essay I’ve read on word counts was written by Colleen Lindsay, a former agent. Read the post.

Lindsay noted that beginning writers often see fat science fiction books on the shelves of bookstores and believe they have to write a book of similar heft. “Good writers learn how to pare a manuscript down to its most essential elements, carving away the word count fat that marks so many beginning writers,” Lindsay wrote.

She met with several fiction writers and compiled a comprehensive list of target word counts for each genre.

Here are some of the word counts listed by Lindsay for various genres, based on feedback she received from editors:

  • Middle grade: 25,000 to 40,000 words, with an average of 35,000.
  • Young Adult: 45,000 to 80,000 words.
  • Paranormal romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Romance: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Category romance: 55,000 to 75,000 words.
  • Cozy mysteries: 65,000 to 90,000 words.
  • Horror: 85,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Westerns: 80,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Mystery/thriller/crime: 90,000 to 100,000 words.
  • Sci-fi and fantasy: this encompasses a wide range of genre, but generally the word counts fall between 90,000 and 100,000.

As a general rule of thumb for new novels, I believe 80,000 words is the right target, regardless of genre. Of course, there are examples of excellent novels with much shorter word counts. Ian McEwen’s brilliant short novel, On Chesil Beach, comes to mind. The novel is only 40,000 words, but it is exceptionally crafted and packed with meaning.

For another perspective on word counts, check out this article published in Writer’s Digest by agent Chuck Sambuchino.

What are your thoughts on word counts?

 

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “What is the Ideal Word Count for a Novel?

  1. Um, very simple — depends on the novel… If you’re writing a fantasy epic then obviously it will be longer than another type of novel, for say, a novel in that takes place in one room. I don’t understand the point of aiming for anything — I mean, it depends on the work and what work needs to be complete…..

  2. I think word count rules are like many of the rules out there on writing. Great guideline, but if you have a reason for breaking them and it works, then you shouldn’t be restricted by the rules.

    • Julie,
      I agree. I know I have had a tough time keeping my novels under 100,000 words. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to shoot for 80,000 words, which can impact the scope and the depth of the work. You are right. Writers should not limit themselves, at least in the first draft. Thanks for your comments.

  3. CG,

    Great post! I do have one thing, though. From doing a little bit of research and asking around, I heard that having 100,000-110,000 is a decent amount. I am no expert, so I am not in any way, shape, or form disagreeing. I just wanted to see what you thought about that.

    May God Bless You!
    Tori

    • Tori,
      Thanks for your comment. There’s nothing wrong with shooting for 100,000 words, but if you want to be published by a traditional publisher, an agent will tell you to shoot for 80,000 words. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Pingback: Stuff About Word Count. |

  5. Great post, very-much enjoyed it. You might be interested in this horror novel

  6. Pingback: How to know if your book is the right length – jean's writing

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