Learn the average wordcount for every type of novel, novella, genre, etc
When I (Harry Bingham) wrote my first novel, I started to worry that I was off the mark. I was scared that agents would reject my book simply because I had got the length wrong. How many words are there in an average novel? I didn’t know.
I went to a bookstore, gathered some (big, hefty) novels in a genre like mine, and sat there on the shop floor and counted words. It turned out that, yes, I was at the very long end of things, but not impossibly long.
I sold that book for a good six-figure sum, and have never looked back since.
At least you don’t need to run down to your nearest big store, since this guide will tell you quickly the average word counts for every category of novel.
We’re going to talk some specific genres in just a moment, but it’s worth setting the landscape a little first, just because you may as well know the territory here, and because a lot of fiction simply doesn’t fit in tidy boxes.
So, the average wordcount for a typical novel is anywhere from 70,000 to 120,000 words. I’d guess that the actual average number of words in a novel was somewhere close to 90,000 words. (How come? Because novels mostly cluster at the shorter end of that 70-120K spectrum. There are plenty of prolific authors who might never break the 100,000 word barrier.)
These guidelines assume that your book is broadly commercial (rather than highly literary, let’s say) and that you are writing for adults. If you are within that broad zone, then as far as length goes, you’re doing fine.
But then again, sometimes fiction is long.
If your story justifies the length, you needn’t worry if you get up to 150,000 words, or even 180,000.
But that is on the very long side. 180,000 words print about 650 paperback pages. You only get away with novels of that scale if the story has an epic quality and storytelling is remorselessly excellent. (Also, don’t trust any source on the internet which tells you that such stories are unsaleable. They’re just not. My own first novel was 190,000 words long and was sold to HarperCollins for a lot of money.)
Romantic fiction usually runs from about 75,000 words up to about 120,000. Anything within those limits is fine. 70,000 words could be okay, but no shorter than that. If you’re over 120,000 words and writing a saga, that’s fine. If you’re writing an ordinary romance, you probably need to do a bit of cutting.
Crime and thriller genres
Crime novels often run a little longer than women’s fiction, so although 75,000 words is fine as a lower limit, anything up to 130,000 words is standard. Don’t go below 75,000, though.
Fantasy and sci-fi genres
Fantasy novels can be long. They can be up to 180,000 words, or even over 200,000, but the novel must be wonderful and must fully justify its word count. In other words, you must be scrupulous about editing every sentence for length.
If you’re writing for a more literary audience, then the rules above apply on upper limits. In other words, anything up to 120,000 words, no problem. Up to 150,000 is fine, but check you’re not waffling. Up to 180,000 words, you really, really need to justify that word count.
And lower limits are quite a lot lower. A good, short literary novel might be 60,000 words. A very good, very short one might be as little as 45 or 50,000. The shorter it gets, the better it needs to be. If you find your novella is as little as 30,000 words, consider merging two more linked novellas, presenting a 90,000-word package to agents and publishers.
How long is a non-fiction book?
Memoir and biography
Most memoirs need to be in the 70,000 to 100,000-word range. Only if you’re a major celebrity can you blow right through that word count and just keep going.
For the kind of book that normally sits on the front tables at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, you’ll find that 70,000 to 120,000 words is about typical. If the topic really justifies length (and especially if your credentials are highly impressive) you can go longer, but check that you remain interesting, even at length.
For anything really niche – e.g. How to Get Started in Internet Fraud – there are no real limits. Just write a good book on the topic and let length look after itself.
How long is a children’s novel?
Young Adult fiction
YA fiction usually needs to be 50,000 to 70,000 words. You can go up to 100,000 if your material is phenomenal and justifiable, but no longer than that.
Middle Grade fiction
Children’s fiction is so varied in terms of length, type, illustration. Your best bet is to go to a good children’s bookstore and look at books like your own in terms of target audience. Multiply up by the number of pages and get to a rough word count. The younger the child, the shorter the word count.
Do you need to edit your novel?
Take a good look at the average word counts you need for a novel or non-fiction.
If your book is too long and you need to cut it, don’t fret. It’s often possible to take a good 30,000 words out of a book without really affecting the content, just by being rigorous about what works – what words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes truly earn their place.
The secret to effective self-editing is always just a relentless search for material that isn’t really contributing to the story . . . and searching at every scale. So you need to ask, “Is this chapter or scene really needed? Could I cut it or simply delete it?” But you also need to ask, “Does this sentence contain more words than it needs? Could I do the same job more effectively with less?”
Bear in mind that cutting a 12-word sentence down to 9 words might feel like nothing to you . . . but that’s the same proportionate reduction as cutting a 120,000 word novel down to 90,000 words. And you only achieve that kind of reduction by being picky about every single word.
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About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)