Counting the Words

They say nothing lasts forever and that applies to books too. I won’t tell you that you can’t write long books, there are plenty out there, but your word count partly needs to be based on market research but largely on the question of how long you’re story needs to be. There’s some debate but on average the minimum length for an adult novel is about 70,000 words, this is an average because some genres average a little shorter and others longer. For instance, a romance novel may be nearer 60,000 words and an epic fantasy novel over 100,000. There isn’t a maximum length for a novel measured in words, though we may say that even a long young adult novel is on average shorter than a long adult novel. We may also say that a crime novel is usually shorter than an epic fantasy and so on, which is what I mean by market research. At the risk of sounding like I’m kicking art in the balls we do need to consider what people look for in the length of a novel.

We can trace this notion back to the early novels and the classics. To begin with books were often fairly short or published in volumes that eventually became larger books. Charles Dickens, for instance, serialised his work a chapter at a time so books like Bleak House and Little Dorrit were originally bite sized chunks rather than the large books they are today. Part of this might be because these chunks made the length of a novel deceptive which might explain why Dickens novels vary so greatly in length while modern writers seem to have a length they’re comfortable with. If you don’t believe me try comparing the books by your favourite writers and you might discover that they hover around an average length, or appear to, when placed side by side.

Presumably, though we can’t say for certain, when Dickens was writing his stories he wrote them as long as he felt they should be and he didn’t have a word processor to tot up the total words for him. However, the problem isn’t so much the word count itself as to whether so many words are necessary. Dickens knew his audience, how to keep them reading and when it was time to stop and when you want to keep your reader reading words need to earn their place. While editing a novel, not in the first draft, you need to constantly ask the question: ‘Is this necessary?’

Now, I’m not telling you that everyone needs to boil their work down to the bare essentials like Hemmingway did. I love a good character scene or an interesting description, the problem comes when we wander off the path too far. We may have an interesting side trip but we need to ask if it is necessary to the story or if we’re mudding the water for the readers or, at worst, boring them. For instance we don’t need in-depth description of everywhere, it can be built up as we go. Nor do we need excessive amounts of information about characters that play very small roles, this may cause the reader to expect them to return and be disappointed when they don’t. Another problem can also be having too many chapters where not much happens, if there’s a lot of chapters where the story spends long periods static perhaps they can be blended together or removed.

As I said, curtailing novel length isn’t about restricting a story based upon a number but rather based on keeping the story moving forward and keeping it interesting. In your first draft the length doesn’t matter but when you’re editing it does need to be considered, even if it means cutting a lot.

If you feel your story needs to be a long one but it seems far outside the length of any other story in your genre than perhaps consider splitting the book in two. On the whole people prefer to read a series of books rather than a single book that they feel looks too long for a genre. It doesn’t mean they won’t read long books but it is something to consider.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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