B – Books, how long should they be? A wordcount guide

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I write novels. Or do I? My first novels were 50,000 words long – because that was the word length given as the minimum to win Nanowrimo. But how long should a novel be, really? How about a short story? This quick reference offers a guide to the expected wordcount of various genres. But take it with a pinch of salt. Your story is as long as your story needs to be.

Flash fiction: Flash fiction is a very short story, sometimes known as a short-short. Standard flashes, if there are such things, are 1,000 words. But there are 100-word drabbles, 50-word, ten-word and six-word story forms, plus stories told Twitter-style in just  140 characters.

Short story: Several online sources suggest that a short story can be up to 7,500 words. That seems awfully high to me. I don’t know about anywhere else, but here in the UK, where the print fiction market is dominated by women’s magazine fiction, the maximum is 1500 words. That’s not much. And there are 5-minute-read lengths too, between 500 and 750 words.  A serial for a magazine might be 15,000 words.

Novella: Everywhere agrees that these are around 25,000 words. However, there is a current trend for extra-short novellas, which might be 12,000-18,000 words.

Novel – adult: Plenty of advice suggests that a novel is between  70,000 and 120,000 words. But see below for the different age and genre expectations.

Novel – young adult: These are sometimes shorter than adult novels, with a wordcount of 60,000 to 90,000 words.  But genre expectations (and fandom) play a part here too, meaning that readers may hunger for longer stories. Twilight has nearly 120,000 words.

Novel – kids: Standard advice is that kids novels are shorter, perhaps 30,000 words. But that doesn’t allow for Harry Potter – even the first book, Philosopher’s Stone, is nearly 80,000 words long.

Genre considerations

Fantasy, science fiction: 90,000 – 120,000 words. Anything over this is apparently considered ‘too much.’ But then again, Game of Thrones is around 280,000 words long. Just look at that number. And that is the shortest of Geroge RR Martin’s series.  A Storm of Swords is over 400,000 words long. That’s a lot of writing. Meanwhile Neil Gaiman, considered a master of the fantasy genre, publishes long books like American Gods but also very short books, such as Stardust, which he says is 50,000 words.

Romance:  – it depends. Mills and Boon-style category romances are 50,000-60,000 words. But each publisher has specific wordcount guidelines for their market, making it hard to generalise. Shorter than a ‘standard’ novel, seems to be the rule. MC Beaton’s Regency romances are about 144 pages long, rather slim books of around 70,000 words.  But some romance novels – for example in the chick lit bracket – are much longer.

Thriller: 90,000-100,000 words, according to online sources. However, this does not explain John Grisham or Lee Child, whose thrillers routinely rack up a 150,000-180,000 wordcount. So I take that one with a pinch of salt.

Historical: up to 100,000 words. But like everything else, this has many subgenres. Wolf Hall has over 180,000 words.

And what about memoir? Well, I couldn’t find much about this, but one source suggests that it should be a similar length to a non-genre novel, so about 70,000-90,000 words.

I hope this helps. Mostly researching this made me realise that you need to find the word count expected for the exact thing you’re doing, or else have an agreement with your outlet. Or, to look at it another way, write your piece and make it as long as it needs to be to tell the story, and no longer. Good luck!

I’ll be back tomorrow with C – Character questionnaires: useful, or a big waste of time?

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