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?