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.
There are bestselling books like Infinite Jest that are incredibly long, and books like The Great Gatsby that are pretty short.
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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Nancy Thompson says
You should share the standard industry formula for determining word count, because the actual document word count determined by the program, such as Microsoft Word, is misleading, for lack of a better term, and most experienced literary agents and publishing house editors typically want the formulated number, which is averaged based on proper formatting (font type and size, line spacing, indents, margins, etc.)
Nathan Bransford says
I think word count is understood to be a ballpark number and not something exact, I’ve never had a problem just rounding off whatever the word count in the program says (and manuscripts should be formatted to industry standard regardless).
But I will see what others think.
But there can be a difference of thousands of words in a total manuscript word count when comparing word/Google docs versus 250 wordsXpage count. If my manuscript is coming in at 280 pages it would be acceptable at 70,000 words using the 250 per page method but the docs count may be as much as 6,000-7,000 words less and so not hitting the ideal mark. Which would be best to use in that case?
Nathan Bransford says
Use the word count from Google Docs.
Sarah LaPolla says
Hi Nancy. I’m an agent and just jumping in here to agree with Nathan’s reply. Word counts are usually rounded up or down, and we do account for the minor differences some word processing programs might have. It’s fine to just give a ballpark figure and keep your manuscript within the general expectations based on your genre.
Thanks for the comprehensive post! It’s interesting to me that some of the books on this list that were quick reads for me have such high word counts. It doesn’t feel like a long book if it’s a good book!
Tora F****ing Blaze says
I don’t agree that fantasy novels should be that short. 120K words max? That’s ridiculous. All the fantasy novels I know of are at least twice as long. Of course, if you mean I can add together the word counts of all genres in the novel I’m writing, then that’s another story. 120K from fantasy, another 120K from science fiction and yet another 120K from elitist fiction, and it totals 360K, which is totally acceptable and in line with the length of some of the famous books you’ve listed.
Debra E. Marvin says
Animal Farm seemed Sooo much longer when I had to read it in school! Gone with the Wind worked for me. Three times in a row.
Tom P. says
I am trying to figure out if my book is a novella or novel and I am finding discrepancies, but the list above seems about right considering. I am wondering though about the list of established novels. Here it says Animal Farm is just under 30,000 but another source I found said the same book was about 36,500.
1984 by Orwell was 125k, but I much preferred Animal farm, despite it not having the same notoriety!
Christina B. says
So, I’m in the midst of writing my first book(s) and have been stressed, thinking by book counts needed to be much longer, but seeing your genre word counts and those of some very famous novels has made me feel so much better! Thanks for such a great post!
Aubree Grace says
Yeah, I’m writing a book in which the main character is…well…dying, so the word count goal is more like 50,000, and I’ve been self-conscious about it the entire time writing the book, but this helps 😂
Christina M says
One more outlier: Debut novel of Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – 308,931 words
Joyette Fabien says
Thanks very much for sharing all this useful information. I have a word manuscript which when converted to book format loses over six thousand words and I just could n’t figure out why. My thinking was that page count could change, but word count should remain the same no matter what. Thanks for the explanation.
I don’t think there should be any differences in word count either, except the coder made some mistakes. Normally a word count would work like this:
1. call a function to convert document into stream and splitt it into words inserting them into a stringlist.
function countWords(DTS As DocToStream(getDocument.this)): integer;
i: cordial int64;
LB := SplitString(‘ ‘, DTS); // splits the strings at every space (= creates 1 word each line)
2. count the words and don’t count sentence signs or paragraphs.
i := 0;
count := 0;
str := LB.items.strings[i];
i := i + 1;
if (str ‘ ‘) // dont count paragraphs
and (str ‘.’) // dont count dots
and (str ‘,’) // dont count commas
and (str ‘?’) // dont count questionmarks
and (str ‘!’) // dont count…
and (str ‘-‘) // dont count…
and (str ‘”‘) // dont count ”
and (str ‘.”‘) // dont count direct speach with dot. (.”)
…. // continue to all non word sentence signs
then count := count + 1; // as it is no sentencemark or paragraph it must be a word.
until LB.items.strings[i] = nil; // end of stream, end loop.
Result := count; // function hands back the amount of words to the formular.
3. In clickevent the output together with the call:
procedure Button_CountWords.OnClick(Sender: TObject);
Label_wordamount.caption := IntToStr(countWords); // calls the function and let it do its code, then changes the type of the result into string and writes it into the label that holds the number of words in the userinterface.
So the only way they can make different values by the same document is by forgetting any exception under point 2. Otherwise the program should be coded in some sort like the code above. Hard to believe that companies as big as MS or Google have so different abilities in coding.
I wished we could somehow figure it out. 🙂
Gregory Trotter says
Why not include Sironia, Texas (Madison Cooper, 1952) at 840,000 words? I’ve read it, an amazing book.
…or The Mezzanine (Nicholson Baker, 1988) at 55,680 words. Also an amazing book. Or even Old Yeller (Fred Gipson, 1942) at 35,968…a classic.
I wanted to say that i was writing a book and i came up with a brilliant idea that we could add some different languages in our books. Such as, if we are writing an ENGLISH KID book, then we can mix hindi with it too.
Thnx for ideas
Jane Mack says
What counts? Writing historical fiction. Do we include a list of characters in the word count? The words in an historical note afterward? Acknowledgements? Further reading? The disclaimer blurb about fiction? Or just the story text and chapter titles?
John Harwood says
My first novel is nearing completion. It’s c. 87,000 words long (historical/general fiction genre). Can anyone give me a rough idea how much manuscript editing costs?
Honestly, that would depend on the editor and the word count. Different editors charge different amounts.Ive used editors for short stories and have been working with one on two novels I’m writing. You should send some queries out to see what you get back as estimated costs.
Robert Gillespie says
I know this is an old post, but just in case Mr. Bransford sees this, I had a question I’d hoped he could answer or shed some light on:
In the post-Covid slush pile glut, are more agents just straightforwardly ignoring anything over 120k when it comes from an author with no referral/connection to the agent? For all genres?
I think most would agree that, in the end, if your first pages are amazing, the query letter itself won’t matter in terms of whether an agent eventually picks you up or not. But it does act as a ‘straining device’, correct? I’m wondering if the huge backlog of submissions have made it so that a lot of agents don’t even bother reviewing anything from an ‘unknown’ author (no referral, personal connection, etc.) as soon as they see a number over 120k in the letter.
As an insider, have you observed anything like this? Appreciate any insight you can provide.
Nathan Bransford says
– Queries really do matter a lot. For many agents, they will be a determining factor on whether an agent even looks at your opening pages.
– Submission responses are slower post-pandemic across the board. Fewer slots, more submissions, more burnout.
– I think it’s unlikely that a significant number of agents have established arbitrary word count cutoffs, but there seems to be less risk taking and it could impact how individual agents feel about investing in reading/representing a very long book.
Jill E Ebstein says
Nathan, this is great. It does make me wonder in 2022 when I hear people tell me that they can’t read for as long and they are looking for shorter books, whether the bottom range has changed much. My draft adult fiction novel is 57,000 words which is within the range, and mostly, I told the story that I wanted to tell.
This was a very helpful post. Thank you!