Ah, word count. Few elements of the book-writing process inspire such hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing as trying to constrain your novel within certain seemingly arbitrary bounds.
In this post I’m going to tell you:
- Why word count matters for novels
- Standard word count ranges for various genres
- The word counts of some famous novels for comparison
But before I do that, let me just say this: don’t overthink it.
Yes, word count matters. Yes, having a book that is overly short or overly long for its genre will incrementally decrease your odds of finding traditional publication. Yes, you should go through the novel revision checklist and take out anything extraneous no matter what.
But at the end of the day, you have to write the novel you want to write. Word count matters, but it doesn’t matter endlessly.
The thing that matters most? A great story.
Why word counts matter
So why does word count matter?
In part this is a literal physical constraint owing to the fact that paper books are a) still placed on shelves and b) often placed spine out. A book that is too short can literally be too short to have its spine out, and a book that is too long will crowd out others on the shelf, in addition to costing more coming and going due to printing and distribution costs.
However, there are also genre conventions at play that influence even self-published books that aren’t likely to be sold on a shelf. A certain length of novel “feels” right to certain audiences, sort of like how the sweet spot for most movies is somewhere between one and a half to two and a half hours.
Readers expect a certain length of novel, and therefore agents and editors care in turn.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT [FAMOUS BOOK] THAT IS [INSERT INSANELY LONG OR SHORT WORD COUNT]”
Yes. Sure. There are exceptions.
But bear in mind a few things:
- Most incredibly long and incredibly short books are not debuts. J.K. Rowling started with two books of relatively conventional length before she had the latitude to start busting word count limits in the Harry Potter series. David Foster Wallace was already a name before Infinite Jest.
- There are always exceptions. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was a debut, as was Jonathan Livingston Seagull, published as a novella.
So remember: If it works, it works.
A very short or very long word count is not going to kill your chances. But it may indeed decrease your odds, especially for a debut.
Word counts by genre
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to word counts, and different sources are going to tell you different things. There are also some sub-genres that have slightly different conventions.
But overall, here’s my own rough stab at word counts by genre:
- Chapter Books (i.e. pre-Middle Grade) – 5,000 – 20,000
- Fantasy – 80,000 – 120,000
- General Fiction – 75,000 – 100,000
- Historical Fiction – 80,000 – 120,000
- Literary Fiction – 50,000 – 120,000
- Middle Grade – 30,000 – 60,000
- Mystery – 75,000 – 90,000
- Novella – 20,000 – 40,000
- Romance – 50,000 – 90,000
- Science Fiction– 90,000 – 120,000
- Thriller – 80,000 – 100,000
- Young Adult – 60,000 – 80,000
As you can see, in general, 120,000 words for me is kind of the upper limit for the genres that allow some leeway in length. If you’re going to go over that, you’d better have a really good reason for it
Word counts of famous novels
Here are some word counts of famous novels, sorted from long to short:
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth – 591,554 words (source)
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – 561,996 words (source)
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 561,304 words (source)
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – 543,709 words (source)
- A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin – 424,000 words (source)
- A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin – 422,000 words (source)
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 418,053 words (source)
- Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – 365,712 words (source)
- A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin – 326,000 words (source)
- A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin – 300,000 words (source)
- A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – 298,000 words (source)
- Ulysses by James Joyce – 262,869 words (source)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling – 257,045 words (source)
- The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – 240,000 words (source)
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – 216,020 words (source)
- Moby-Dick by Herman Melville – 209,117 words (source)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – 198,227 words (source)
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – 196,774 words (source)
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – 190,637 words (source)
- The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien – 187,790 words (source)
- Dune by Frank Herbert – 187,240 words (source)
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – 169,481 words (source)
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith – 169,389 words (source)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling – 168,923 words (source)
- The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien – 156,198 words (source)
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – 155,717 words (source)
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 144,523 words (source)
- The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien – 137,115 words (source)
- Atonement by Ian McEwan – 123,378 words (source)
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer – 118,975 words (source)
- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman – 112,815 words (source)
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – 107,253 words (source)
- Divergent by Veronica Roth – 105,143 words (source)
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – 100,388 words (source)
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – 99,750 words (source)
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – 95,356 words (source)
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – 85,141 words (source)
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – 84,845 words (source)
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – 76,944 words (source)
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – 73,404 words (source)
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – 70,570 words (source)
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – 67,707 words (source)
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – 67,203 words (source)
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker – 66,556 words (source)
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – 64,531 words (source)
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – 63,422 words (source)
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton – 48,523 words (source)
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – 47,094 words (source)
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – 46,333 words (source)
- The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon – 46,573 words (source)
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – 38,421 words (source)
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl – 30,644 words (source)
- Animal Farm by George Orwell – 29,966 words (source)
Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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Art: Stillleben mit Globus, Musikinstrumenten, Büchern und Rötelzeichnung by Jan ver Meulen