by Eva Marie Everson
*Word counts vary depending on the source.
It’s not unusual for me, as the president of Word Weavers International, to receive an email with a question about “lengths.”
- How long should a chapter be?
- How long should a section of a chapter be?
- How long should my novel be?
- How long should my work of nonfiction be?
The answers are as varying as the number of websites and Pinterest pins dedicated to writers and/or the art of writing.
So, let’s break it down a little.
As a writing coach, I typically suggest that chapters (whether in novels or works of nonfiction), hit only about 2,500 – 3,500. I find that once chapters hit over that length, the reader gets weary. Even if the writing is superb. I believe this is because we’re a generation of “hurry up.” Everything comes in snippets. Every few minutes, a commercial break. Every few blocks, a red light.
Case in point: Twitter—a force of social media—only allows 140 characters … and has its own style of storytelling called “twitterature.” Short. Fast. Easy.
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” This quote has been attributed to a number of famous writers from Mark Twain to George Tullie. No matter who said it, the truth lies in the line. It’s more difficult to write “short” than to write “long.”
Ask anyone who has written a short story (2,500 – 5,000 words / under 7500 words / 1,000 – 7,500 words*), or a short-short story (500 – 2,500 words), flash fiction (1,000 words), a dribble (50 words), a drabble (100 words), or—brace yourself—the six-word story.
As someone who writes (typically) long fiction (100,000 words), I thought when I was contracted to write a Christmas novella (God Bless Us Every One, Abingdon, 2016) that creating a story between 17,500 – 39,999 / 17,000 – 40,000 / 20,000 – 50,000 words would be a cinch.
I’m only grateful I wasn’t asked to write a novelette (7,000 – 25,000 words / 7,500 – 20,000 words / 7,500 – 17,499 words).
According to some lists, novels are divided into two- up to three-sections.
- Paperback: 35,000 – 80,000 words
- Hardback: 35,000 – 150,000 words
- Novel (both paperback and hardback): 40,000+ / 50,000 – 110,000 words
- Epics: 110,000+ words
As for children’s books, the breakdown of word count can be equally as complicated.
Some board books (books for very young children with cardboard “pages”) have as few as 16 pages and as many as 24 pages, while picture books can run from 32 to 48 pages. But, the most common answer you’ll find when it comes to the question of picture books is “32 pages.”
How does that translate to words? Again, there are a number of answers. Some references say 500 – 1,500 words, while others break it down further:
- Ages 5 – 8: up to 1,000 words
- Easy Readers (up to age 9): up to 2,500 words
- Chapter Books (up to age 10): up to 12,000 words
- Middle Grade Novels (up to age 12): up to 25,000 words
- Young Adult Novels (ages 12 and up): up to 45,000 words / up to 80,000 words
Finally, for nonfiction writers, word count ranges (and boy does it range) from 20,000 – 200,00 words. (No, that’s not a typo). This broad scope is due to the wide range of subgenres within the nonfiction genre. Gift books, etc. will lean toward the fewer number words while biographies will lean toward the higher number word count.
A couple of years ago, while writing Five Brides for Tyndale, I realized I would easily go over the 120,000 words they’d designated for the novel. I panicked, called my editor, and waited for the “self-edit” lecture. Instead, she said, “Just write, Eva. We’ll figure it out from here.”
The book ended at 123,000 words and, by and large, they kept every word.
I was quickly reminded of when I’d written Waiting for Sunrise (Baker/Revell, 2011). My contract called for 85,000 words. I easily flew past the number, called my editor, waited for the “self-edit” lecture, but instead was told, “Just write. We’ll slice and dice.” I ended at 100,000 words, sent in the manuscript, and waited. A few weeks later my editor called and said, “We want more words!” The book ended at 110,000 words.
The moral of the story isn’t “just write,” although that’s a good one. The moral is, “every book calls for its own number of words” and “each publishing house is different.”
Use these figures as a guideline, but ultimately, you’ll want to ask your editor for their word-count guidelines.
Best-selling, award-winning author Eva Marie Everson is the president of Word Weavers International, the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference, and the contest director for Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Her latest novel, The One True Love of Alice-Ann (Tyndale), releases April 1, 2017.