Monday, March 10, 2014

Wordcraft -- Word counts for novels, when more is less

What’s with all the numbers? Not just the numbers from the new Cosmos series, with memories of Carl Sagan’s original and gleeful “billions and billions”. Everywhere I turn, there are numbers in writing, word counts, that is.

A month ago, a friend asked me to make recommendations for her novel, listing its total word count at less than 30,000, well under E.M. Forster’s circa 1920’s suggestion of over 50,000 words to meet the definition of “novel.” At a meeting a week ago, an author recounted being told her 100,000 word novel was over the publisher’s limit of 80,000. Now, while revising a novel that now weighs in at 72,000 words, a blog hits my inbox saying anything under 80,000 might be a tad too short.

And, conversely, that anything over 100,000 words probably is going to be considered a tad, maybe many tads, too long.

What’s a writer to do? The first thing is to write the story we’re driven to write and let the number of words take care of themselves. The kind of story we’re drive to write will in itself determine what number of words is right for it.

Simpler stories, simpler at least in plot, setting, and number of characters, naturally take fewer words. Think of stories with fable-like structures, such as Animal Farm and The Call of the Wild, both in the neighborhood of 30,000 words. (Although I’m wondering how they would find traditional publishers in this century.) 

Or think of books specifically for younger readers, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Old Yeller; and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, all in the 30,000 - 40,000 word range.

The greater the story’s complications, and as the age of the anticipated readers increases, the greater the word count will be and should be. This is why word counts of the Harry Potter series mushroom from under 80,000 initially to approximately 200,000 in the latest volumes.

And about those friends with too short or long stories? One confessed her book was still in early drafts, with room for lengthening. The one with the too-long book was saved, deus ex machina style, by having her desired imprint mercifully increase its word limits. And me? At only two-thirds of the way through, I think my novel will top out between 75,000 and 78,000 words. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

That said, some genres and publishers have their own limits, based on issues such as production costs and the expectations of readers. Romance Writers of America, for instance, lists specific limits for its subgenre contests at

To see the blog from my inbox whose writer was brave enough to suggest limits for a number of genres, see “Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post,” October 24, 2012, at

And if you just want to have fun checking other people’s numbers, take a look at “Word Count for Famous Novels (organized),” at

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