Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Story length has come up a lot recently, both with readers of The Editor’s Blog and with clients.
So, let’s look a bit at story length.
The short answer to the question about the length of a story is to say every story should be as long as it needs to be. It should satisfy the story setup and problem without overwhelming the reader with more words than are necessary.
Right. But what does that mean?
That means that you don’t drag out your resolution. You give each story an ending that balances the length and depth of the narrative that has come before. You don’t drag it out.
But you also don’t drag out chapters. Or scenes. Or dialogue. Or even sentences. Get the point across in the fewest words possible. Tell the reader what he needs to know and then move on.
Don’t belabor any point. Cut off scenes while they’re still strong rather than leaching out all their power with too much detail and unnecessary explanation. Make readers want more, in a good way, rather than have them wishing you’d shut up already.
If you’ve made your point, get on to the next one.
Cut out repetition. Cut out fluff. Cut out the zillions of unimportant actions between one scene and the next.
Cut out any word, phrase, character, or scene that doesn’t contribute to the current story you’re writing. That is, write one story without trying to force a half-dozen into the same manuscript.
On the other hand, put in words that flavor your passages. Give readers enough detail that your characters seem real. Their plights believable. Their goals meaningful.
Write scenes, not only summaries. Write dialogue that serves to increase conflict and move the story forward.
Write fresh phrases. Write events. Create an interesting story.
Give readers no more and no less than is necessary to complete the story.
And write with story standards in mind.
There are common word counts for not only different genres, but for different categories of fiction. If you’re looking to go the traditional publication route, writing to industry standards is a wise choice. No, not every piece of fiction fits neatly into a typical word count, but most do. And if you’re a new author, you’ll want to use every advantage to get your fiction accepted.
You wouldn’t want a story to be rejected solely based on word count, would you?
I can lay out guidelines for story length, but keep in mind that these are guidelines, not absolutes. Check publishers for their needs and limitations before you submit to them.
Guidelines for story length
Short Story up to 7,500 words
Novelette 7,500 to 20,000 words
Novella 20,000 to 50,000 [some say 40,000] words
Novel over 50,000 [some say 40,000]
Picture books up to 500 words [absolute maximum of 1,000]
Easy readers anything from 200 to 2,500
Chapter books 6,000 to 10,000 words [even up to 25,000]
Middle grade 30,000 to 45,000 words
Young adult 45,000 to 70,000 words
Keep in mind that there are exceptions and allowances at both ends of these ranges. There are also sub-categories that could further refine these counts.
While these are general word counts, some genres allow for longer stories. Sci-fi, fantasy, paranormals, and epics allow for higher word counts in both adult and children’s fiction.
Also keep in mind audience and publisher needs. Novels that are too short might not appeal or might not fit a publisher’s needs, and novels that are too long may be rejected simply for length.
Publishers typically won’t consider a writer’s first novel if it’s too long. The maximum standard word count for an adult novel is about 110,000 words (some would say 130,000 words). Anything from 80,000 to 110,000 is common, with many novels falling in the 90,000 to 100,000 count range.
The romance genre has word count standards of its own.
Category romance 55,000 words
Single title 90,000 to 110,000 words
There’s also a lot of variety in the mystery/thriller genre. Cozy mysteries are typically shorter, maybe as few as 65,000 words, though even that word count could be higher.
If your first novel is 145,000, 190,000, or 250,000 words, start cutting. If you intend to be published by a traditional publisher.
Or take your 280,000 word epic and make it three books instead of one.
The reality is that new writers have to prove themselves before publishers can take a chance on a long novel from them. So prove you can write a killer novel—or two or three—that comes in at 95,000 words. Then when you make millions for the publisher, offer them that 180,000 word masterpiece.
And yes, before you say it, there are exceptions. But one exception out of thousands and thousands of manuscripts isn’t great odds. Don’t handicap your chances at being published for the sake of word count.
Pick up any novel, especially those written in a different era, and you may well find a wildly different word count. Yet you are writing today, so your options depend on today’s gatekeepers and marketplace.
Note: There are different rules for self-publishing. If someone else isn’t laying out the money and their reputation for your work, you can write longer stories. Keep in mind, however, that you still have to please readers. No matter what the length, make it a great story.
Both stories that are too short and too long are hard to sell. Try to keep yours within the standard ranges. Give yourself an edge by fitting in. Yes, you do want your writing to stand out, but there are some areas where standards rule. Let your characters and plot be wild and adventurous. Let your writing be bold. But let industry rules give boundaries to your creativity. Think of industry standards as the frame for your writing.
Write creatively. But do so in a way that will give others the opportunity to read your work.
Know when following rules and standards is to your benefit.
Write—and publish—your good fiction.
We can’t wait to read it.