Word Count Guidelines for Fiction

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Periodically, I look at word-count guidelines for fiction—for instance, when it’s time to revise something for publication. More than once I’ve found my way to this site: The Swivet, a blog of Colleen Lindsay (who works for Penguin and used to be an agent).

Colleen’s advice for word-counts is, basically, aim for under 100,000 words. In fantasy, you can sometimes get away with a slightly higher count (120k), but editors prefer shorter to longer manuscripts. Colleen explains this in terms of investment risk: a larger book costs more to print and takes up more shelf space at the bookstore. Everybody, the consumer included, has to make a larger commitment to a longer book. And, we all know, people don’t read as much as they used to. So there you have it. Depressing, but so very rational, isn’t it?

Why on earth did I have to look at this blog post more than once, you may ask? 100k is an easy number to remember, right?

Well, this last time through, I poked through the comments at the bottom, looking for some insight. Some interesting things there, including disputes about how to calculate word counts, and theories about why (some) writers take longer to tell their story.

But most interesting to me was the user who linked to this site—something I’d been wanting for a long time, though not consciously enough to Google it: a word-count generator for some of my favorite books. You can do yours (though you’ll only find some of the more well-known works). Here are a few of mine, from most words to least.

The Brothers Karamazov: 364,153

Crime and Punishment: 211,591

The Fellowship of the Ring: 177,227

The Iliad: 118,622

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: 105,590 (this is a children’s book, remember!)

The Hobbit: 95,022 (this, too!)

A Wizard of Earthsea: 56,533

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: 53,758

Briar Rose: 50,341

Now for some early influences (in the order in which I read them):

The Mouse and the Motorcycle: 22,416

Robinson Crusoe: 121,961

White Fang: 72,071

Great Expectations: 183,349

Jane Eyre: 183,858

Pride and Prejudice: 121,342

What do these numbers mean? Not much. But I’m good at finding patterns where they don’t exist. So here are my findings:

1. Different stories take different amounts of words to tell. (Obvious, but think about it for a minute.)

2. Not even one of the books I have especially liked or that have influenced me from an early age fall within Colleen’s suggested 80-100K range. They’re mostly either much longer or much shorter.

3. The overwhelming majority of books I like are way too long for today’s publishing industry. White Fang (a “middle grade” book, if they had had that category back in the day) is probably too long for that category. Huck Finn is even worse, as is the Hobbit. The Iliad is a freaking poem, and it’s still longer than the recommended writerly allowance.

4. Not one of these books is too long or too short, in real life – in terms of what matters most, which is art.

So what shall we make of this? Doesn’t it make you scratch your head?

Where did these word-count guidelines come from? What ouija board communicated this message to the publishing world? “Novel … must … be … 80 … to .. 100 … k”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt Colleen for a minute. I’ve seen similar numbers tossed around too often, for one thing. Nor do I advise anyone (including myself) to disregard these ideal word counts. (I recently gutted one of my own fantasy novels from 120k to 93k. Though my motives were mixed: I felt the story wasn’t tight enough.)

It’s just that I wonder whether the publishing industry is in touch with readers on this one. After all, mine is a reader’s list. I’m complaining, not about the restrictions on my writing (well, ok, a little, but not mostly). No, I’m mostly puzzled by the strange calculus that decided that I, the reader, do not want a really engaging book of whatever length it happens to be. Thank you very much. My money. My discretionary spending. My time to waste – or not.

Who’s wagging this tail?

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7 thoughts on “Word Count Guidelines for Fiction

  1. Enjoyed the post. It’s certainly something I think about.

    This whole word count thing is a tricky business. It’s definitely genre specific. My wife writes romance where first time authors are guided to more like 60 to 90K. I’ve heard more like 90 to 120K for fantasy (or more by some folks).

    In the end, the publishing industry is a business run by people with lots of experience. As a rule of thumb for the market as it had developed by the end of the 20th century, I’ve not doubt that they know what they are talking about.

    Of course, that was so 20th century. Readers habits have changed and e-books break the old models. While the cost of editing is still per word, there’s a lot less difference between a long book and a short book these days, since distributing (not prep’ing it for sale) an e-book is pretty much flat cost regardless of word count, so any amount of e-book sales will dilute the per-page burden.

    I find the word count thing annoying but if I end up self-publishing, it won’t really matter, within reason, and if I get a conventional publisher, I’ll deal with it then. In the meantime, I don’t like to read rambling, over-long books myself so I try not to write them. And my own effort on these projects is per word. Therefore, if I keep it shorter, I’m done sooner. I don’t have a magic number I’m shooting for but I do employ the scissors ruthlessly. Concise is almost always better, except when you are one of a very, very small number of writers that can get away with bloat.

    As a data point, on my current project I was at 118,000 words first draft, currently around 112,000 words second draft. I’d prefer to be under 110,000 when done but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Odds are I will have to self publish, and I don’t have any trouble with a 120K fantasy book that is a complete novel, not part 1 of N.

    Anyway, well before I have to argue with an editor over cutting words, I’ve got to do many other irritating things like query letters, outlines, pitches 🙂

    Cheers

    • Thanks for those thoughts. I agree: I’ve got to cut the fat from the first (or second or third) draft. And then those other matters, like query letters and the choice of self-pub. I’ve been focused on trying to go the traditional route with publishing, so maybe I’ve spent more emotional energy on word counts than is strictly healthy!

  2. Funny, I just read The Princess Bride and was having trouble reconciling the frame narrative with the actual book. A friend of mine told me that the frame is a response to William Goldman’s publisher, who asked him to increase the word count because he didn’t want to publish a novella. And this is way after the “Dickensian era” (haha) where authors got paid by the word.
    I’m actually surprised at the 100,000 word count. It seems so low because we seem to be in an age where “more is better” rather than “less is more” when it comes to books (especially genre fiction and YA/ Middle grade series).

    • Thanks for that, Kelly. I always wondered about Goldman’s frame narrative myself. That makes good sense! (Random side-note: I read that when I was recovering from wisdom-tooth removal.)

      The word on the street for newbie authors is that Rowling and others can get away with huge word counts because they’re well known/established. A lot of these limits are for first-time authors. They’re driven by marketing concerns, rather than reader (and author) tastes. I don’t blame publishers for this, but it is what it is.

      • The limits are definitely for unproven authors. However, proven authors often let things get away from them. I always felt King’s lates 70s and early 80s novels suffered for not being forced to be concise. And while I do like the Harry Potter books, they weren’t served that well for being extra long.

  3. Great post, Fairyspell.
    For me, as I am committed to the self-publishing route, writing the story well in however many words it takes, is the only rule I follow.
    And thanks for mentioning my post ‘Word counts – Can they be forgotten like the traditional publishing houses?’

    • Thanks! I liked how your post brings in the self-publishing angle, a side I wasn’t focused on here (but makes a lot of sense to put next to this). It’s a great question you ask there.

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