So you’re trying to determine the best length for your novel. Sooner or later, just about all writers who want to publish their books reach this point. Ideally, the response would be something clever like “ however many words you need to tell your story. No more, no less.” In reality, though, there are definite conventions that writers should be aware of when it comes to the correct “novel-length.”
The most common novel-length is 80,000–100,000 words. The absolute bare-bones minimum length is 50,000 words. Anything shorter than that is getting into novella-length territory. And anything more than 200,000–250,000 words is considered epic, as in War and Peace or A Game of Thrones. And good luck if that’s what you’re going for. You’ll be writing for a long, long time.
That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Hold on. Not so fast. The above numbers are very broad and general. The TRUE best length for a novel depends on much more than what is ideal or what is most common.
To get closer to the best length for your novel, you’ll have to consider the genre. (For a deep dive into “genre” see What Is Literary Fiction? in another blog post here at Writer Imagine). The expectations and wishes of readers and publishers vary widely depending on the genre. We will get into why this is crucial in a bit.
First, let’s take a look at the expected word counts by genre. Next, we’ll give some examples of popular novels and their word counts. Then we get into why this all matters. And finally, we’ll talk about how you can make sure your novel is the right length.
Here’s what we will cover broken down nice and neatly for you:
- Fiction Genres and Their Expected Word Counts
- Word Counts for Some Popular Novels
- Why Novel Length Matters
- How to Get to the Right Word Count
Fiction Genres and Their Expected Word Counts
The following word counts are very general and should be considered rough guidelines. Once you decide on the genre for your novel, you should take the time to do more research on the best novel-length for that particular genre and subgenre if there is one.
- Women’s fiction: these generally run around 80,000–100,000 words. They can get especially long when there is more than one main character whose story needs to be fleshed out.
- Romance novels: the range here is about 40,000–100,000 words. The length varies so widely due to the many subgenres such as paranormal, erotica, and historical. Mainstream romance novels tend toward the higher end of the range.
- Crime, mystery, and thrillers: these tend to be shorter in length than other genres, about 70,000–90,000 words. That’s because readers expect these novels to be fast-paced without a lot of wordiness. They aren’t likely to stick around while a writer goes on and on, chapter after chapter, to develop the characters.
- Science fiction and fantasy: novels in this genre are generally longer than those in others, about 90,000–150,000 words, and often even longer than that. The writer needs time and space to build a fantasy or technical world including settings, attire, behavior, technology, and more. Readers expect vivid, drawn-out descriptions that will take them deep into these alternative worlds.
- Historical fiction: these novels also often run long, about 80,000–100,000 words. Again, the reader expects the author to create a world that takes her back to a different time and place in history.
- Young adult: this genre tends to run 50,000–80,000 words.
- Children’s fiction: the length here varies depending on age but ranges from 50,000–200,000 words or more, with the longer lengths for those in the middle-grade age range.
Word Counts by Genre
|Crime, mystery, thrillers||70,000–90,000|
|Science fiction and fantasy||90,000–150,000|
Word Counts for Popular Novels
Here are the approximate word counts for some popular novels. The list was compiled from several sources. If this kind of thing interests you, get busy with Google. Tons more are out there to be found. Commonplacebook.com had one of the more extensive lists that I could find.
- A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin: 298,000
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling: 168,000
- The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan: 91,400
- The Color Purple, by Alice Walker: 66,560
- Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison: 92,400
- War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy: 587,300
- Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry: 365,700
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee: 100,390
Why Novel Length Matters
Now that you have some general guidelines on the best lengths for novels by genre, let’s talk about why it even matters. Why can you just write until you feel that you’ve told your story? Why do you even have to bother at all about length?
There are two reasons mainly:
- reader desires
- publisher expectations
Readers of particular genres have come to expect a certain length in their novels. If yours is much shorter, they may feel that it is too thin to justify the price and that they won’t get their money’s worth.
If your novel is much longer than what they’re used to reading, they might get turned off at the thought of having to tackle a lengthy book.
Publishers also have expectations when it comes to novel-length. First, they want to please readers by publishing books at the length that they know their readers expect.
Publishers also have to consider production costs. It takes money to edit and print a novel, and the more pages, the more money it takes. Why should they take the time and resources to edit and print your 200,000-word romance novel if readers can be satisfied with half that length? They can’t double the price of that 200-word novel, so they would end up losing money.
If a novel is longer than expected for the genre, the editor whose desk your manuscript lands on might feel that the writer doesn’t understand the standards and conventions of the genre that she is trying to write for or maybe that she doesn’t know how to edit herself. Hence, the editor may not even bother to read it.
So, make it easier on yourself. Writing and getting a novel accepted for publication is difficult enough. Don’t give readers or publishers an easy reason to reject your novel, simply because you didn’t follow the guidelines for length.
How to Get to the Right Word Count
Now that you know how many words are needed for a novel in the genre you’re writing for, you need to figure out two things:
- how to determine the length of your manuscript
- how many words your manuscript will translate into as a final, printed book.
Here is how to determine the number of words in your manuscript, using a few popular word processing programs and apps:
- MS Word: the word count is automatically shown at the bottom left of the page as you type; you can also select “Tools” from the toolbar at the top of the page, then select “Word Count” from the dropdown menu.
- Pages: click “View” from the menu bar at the top of the page; scroll down to “Show Word Count.”
- Scrivener: the word count for whichever document you’re working on appears at the bottom of the screen.
- Google Docs: click “Tools” in the top menu and scroll down and select “Word Count.”
As for the number of words needed in your manuscript to get to the correct word count in the book, it depends on the type size you’re using (12-point is standard, as is double spacing). A general rule is that there are about 250–300 words to a page in a book. So a 55,000-word book is about 200 manuscript pages. A 100,000-word book takes about 400 pages.