Every word counts

By Joe Moore

One topic that seems to show up often with beginning writers is word count. Questions like: Are there rules for counting words? Is my fantasy too long at 600k? How long should a novella be? A short story? How do you get an accurate word count?

Word count can vary depending on genre. And in some cases, genre dictates word count. Readers tend to expect a certain word count in the genre they enjoy and will shy away from books that are longer or even shorter than what they’re used to.

Before we had computers and word processing programs with built-in word count features, the general rule used to be 250 words to a double-spaced manuscript page. Obviously, this was always going to result in an estimate, but a fairly good one. Today, it’s easy to determine your word count. For example, MS Word 2007 displays a running total at the bottom of the screen. So getting an accurate word count is no longer an issue.

How about what’s expected of a contemporary novel? I think the magic number to always aim for is 80k words. Eighty thousand is a good, safe number, especially if you’re a first-time author.

The thing that new writers sometimes forget is that more words mean more pages. More pages mean more printing costs. Does the publisher want to invest additional money into a new author just because he or she won’t give up a single word?

So if you’re writing a mystery or thriller or romance, you’ll be safe if your book is at least 80k words.

What about short stories? The answer is that in almost all cases, the word count on short stories is specified by the publisher. Check the submission requirements of the magazine or anthology to make sure you’re within the guidelines.

I think it’s important to remember that there’s always going to be some wiggle room with word count. No agent or publisher is going to reject your book if you missed the count by 1k or 5k or even 10k, especially if the story blows them away. But try to be accurate. There’s no excuse not to.

As a general rule of thumb, here’s a basic guideline to work count:

  • Epic: A work of 200,000 words or more.
  • Novel: A work of 60,000 words or more.
  • Novella: A work of at least 17,500 words but under 60,000 words.
  • Short story: A work of at least 2,000 words but under 7,500 words.
  • Flash fiction: A work of less than 2,000 words.

Does your contract specify word count? Have you ever had to trim because the publisher felt the book was too long for your genre? Or add because it was coming in too short? Do you think about word count as you write?

11 thoughts on “Every word counts

  1. I always fret about word count. I’m often worried I’m never going to have enough material to fill a whole book. I tend to write pretty lean, especially on second draft. My last completed novel clocked in at only around 75k.

  2. My contract specifies a 100K word count, but truthfully I’ve never paid a lot of attention to it. NO MERCY came in at 127K, which is longer than I’d like, but we all agreed that it was as tight as it could go. My first novel, NATHAN’S RUN, was also my shortest at 109K.

    But the commercial thriller market is a forgiving one, word-coutwise. I’m told that other genres are not. I’ve heard stories from category mystery and romance writers that there’s very little wiggle room in word count.

    John Gilstrap

  3. Rob, 75k might be a bit on the lean side depending on the genre. But I still believe the story comes first. Let the agent/editor make the call.

    Elizabeth, I wonder if having a specified word count in a contract can also work against a writer when it comes to creativity? Have you ever felt that it did?

    John, you’re right. I’ve heard that romance especially can have tight word-count guidelines. I’m sure this goes back to the expectations of the customer.

  4. I concentrate more on page count than word count. Some books can have a lot of “white space.” For example, short paragraphs, and end-of-chapter pages that are only a couple of paragraphs. In those cases, one might have fewer words relative to the page count.

  5. It depends on your publisher, actually. This time around I wrote my longest book- 114,000 words- and was told that it needed to come in much closer to 100,000. And there was no wiggle room on that number- so I went back through with a fine tooth comb and tightened up the language so that I wouldn’t have to cut any scenes. It turned out to be a good exercise for me, but made for a grueling few weeks. From what I’ve heard, more publishers are doing similar things in this economic climate, trying to keep costs down.

  6. I usually write around 110k and pare it down to 85 – 90k. I’m comfortable in that zone. That works better for me than doing 70k and trying to add to it.

  7. I was glad to discover a while back that the word count for my book fell right in the guidelines for it. I think when you are writing though, just write what you think the story needs, and then add or take away when you edit.

  8. I have people in India who count my words for me. They count letters and spaces and divide by six. Then their children count the actual words and we add the figures and divide by 2.

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