A Word Count Guide for 18 Different Book Genres

A Word Count Guide for 18 Different Book Genres

“My memoir is 270,000 words long.”

I heard these words during a breakout session I led at a local writers conference.

An editor friend of mine, Shayla Eaton with Curiouser Editing, was sitting in on the breakout. We gave each other knowing glances, and because I didn’t want to break this poor memoirist’s literary heart, I nodded at Shayla to take the lead.

As nicely but as directly as she could, she explained to the memoirist that a 270,000-word memoir was excessive. Even if she self-publishes, the cost per copy would be high, and few readers would slog through such a tome — particularly for someone who’s not famous.

And no agents or publishers would even look past that number.

The prose could be as fleet-footed as Fitzgerald’s. The life story could be as compelling as Lincoln’s. The platform could be as broad as Oprah’s. But no agent would get to know that because they’d see “Memoir: 270,000 words” and hit delete before reading any further.

So, how long should a memoir be?

For that matter, how long should any book be?

The short answer is: long enough to tell the story but short enough to consistently hold the reader’s interest.

The long answer is, well, longer.

Why does word count matter?

Word count matters because every book, regardless of genre, has an inherent contract with the reader. But that contract is dependent upon the book’s genre.

For instance, when a reader picks up a thriller, they have certain expectations of what they’re about to read. That includes scenes like “the hero at the mercy of the villain,” but it also includes book length. Because thrillers are about pulse-pounding action and maybe some character development (especially if it’s part of a series), the word count isn’t massive. Thrillers tend to be 70,000 to 90,000 words.

If you’re not a thriller author, I won’t keep you in suspense. At the end of this article, you’re going to find a guide to suggested word count length for most every popular genre.

My point is that your genre will likely dictate your word count. There are exceptions, like YA books that exceed 250,000 words, but those tend to be outliers, and first-time authors rarely, if ever, get to be an outlier.

Additionally, knowing your word count before you start writing can help you better plan your narrative arc as well as your writing schedule.

What is the average length of a book?

Before diving into the specifics of genre-based word counts, let’s look at the broader picture of average book length.

For most publishers, a book is “novel-length” when it’s between 50,000 and 110,000 words.

At a writers conference I recently attended, Jane Friedman said 80,000 words is good for most fiction, below 60,000 isn’t novel territory, and about 120,000 is likely too much.

Writer’s Digest recommends 80,000 to 89,999 words as a “100% safe range for literary, mainstream, women’s, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror.” That’s approximately 300 pages of double-spaced type.

In “Outlining Your Book in 3 Easy Steps,” editor Shawn Coyne says, “The average novel today is about 90,000 words. Big, epic stories get anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 words.” But, he also mentions that “The Wizard of Oz was 40,000 words. The Old Man and the Sea was about 25 to 30,000 words, tops.”

Coyne uses the Nanowrimo word-count length of 50,000 words for his examples, calling 50,000 words a good foundation to build upon.

So what does that mean for you, author?

If you’re working on a novel-length book, aim for 50,000 words at the very least — but it’s better to aim for 90,000. Editorial trimming is inevitable.

However, you’ll also want to take your genre into account.

What should my word count be?

The following are average word-count ranges per genre.

General

Fiction Genres

  • Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
  • Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000 (and sometimes 150,000) words
  • Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
  • Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,000

Children’s Books

  • Picture Books: 300–800 words
  • Early Readers: 200–3500 words
  • Chapter Books: 4000–10,000 words
  • Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words

Nonfiction

  • Standard Nonfiction (Business, Political Science, Psychology, History, etc.): 70,000–80,000 words
  • Memoir: 80,000–100,000 words
  • Biography: 80,000–200,000 words
  • How-to / Self-Help: 40,000–50,000 words

All of these are average ranges and should not be taken as the definitive word count you must reach in your book. We all know of outliers within each genre that have been published well under, or well over, these word counts.

Use these numbers as a baseline for your writing goals.

Know what readers expect in terms of your genre’s word count (even if the reader isn’t aware of their expectations when it comes to how long a book is).

Lastly, don’t let those commas instill fear. Fifty thousand words isn’t that much divided into five days a week for a year. That’s only 193 words per writing day!

Filed Under: Craft
Karan Bajaj

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26 comments

  • Another guideline that some authors may find helpful is how the different lengths could translate into a screenplay without major additions to or omissions from the integral storyline:

    A short story could provide material for a single program-length television episode, a novella for a movie, and a full-length novel for a mini-series. Not that it is by any means impossible to expand or contract as needed for a different match, but that will give a sense of how much “material” is in each.

    Whatever you write, I wish you success with all your projects!

    Trish O’Connor
    Owner, Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • Brenda Morris-McGuffey says:

      Thank you for this priceless information. I’m sure that I’ll need it for future references.

  • C. S. Lakin says:

    At Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel weeklong workshop, this question about word count was asked, and I default to Donald’s answer every time. Word count doesn’t matter and isn’t the issue. A novel should be as long as it needs to be (same with nonfiction) and no longer and no shorter. The plot determines the length.

    As a writing coach and copyeditor, I see a lot of manuscripts come across my desk. Those that are written well see success, regardless of length. There are plenty of examples of very long books in just about every genre.

    I recently completed a novel that is dark comedy/women’s fiction and it came in at 153,000 words. My agent loves it and says it’s terrific and is excited about potential sales. She’s a top NY literary agent who’s been on the scene for decades. She made no mention of the word count, nor did she suggest I cut the book down. And that’s because every line of every scene is packed full of hilarity and serves a plot that moves at a fast clip.

    So, I wouldn’t get all worked up about word count. Certain publishers of very specific genres (like Love Inspired, Harlequin) will require a set word count or range, but my first bit of advice is to plot out a strong, solid story using time-tested structure, write the book with careful and expert crafting (learn to be a great wordsmith and develop your unique voice), and ignore the constraints of word count. Just write a great book. I daresay if you do, no one will even notice your word count (unless you are trying to get into a publisher’s imprint that has specific word count requirements).

    • Dave LaRoche says:

      Hooray for you – good story tightly written employing appropriate craft is as long as it needs to be.

  • Ann Anderson Evans says:

    There are so many exceptions to this rule that I don’t understand why it is even a rule. Many of the most popular recent books are well over 270,000 words. I just finished Pachinko, which is over300 pages long, and A Little Life, which is 800 pages long. Readers tell me that they like getting lost in a book.

    • Cheryl says:

      Exaclty!! Readers don’t care about length as much as editors and publishers do. Many readers just want a story that keeps them reading!

    • Shayla says:

      Those are novels, aren’t they? Not a memoir. He used the 270,000-word memoir as an example because 1) memoirs are close to impossible to traditionally publish, so a word count that long won’t get past the agent, and 2) it’s very, very hard to sell a memoir even through self-publishing, let alone at that word count. I think there’s some confusion here on memoir word count vs. novel word count. However, the good news is: any writer on here can prove Blake wrong. If you think a 270,000-word memoir will make it past the agent, do it! But Blake is trying to give everyone here some guidelines.

      • JOHN T SHEA says:

        No commenter has suggested a 270,000 word memoir. Most of Mr. Atwood’s guidelines are about non-memoirs and that is what several commenters are disputing, with examples they believe have already proved him wrong. Clearly different editors have different guidelines.

    • Alex says:

      Hi Ann, can you give me an example of a published 270,000 word novel? Even Stephen King’s old stuff isn’t that long. 800 pages puts the word count somewhere around 160,000. So a 270,000 word count makes that novel somewhere around 1,300 pages. That’s a weighty tome!
      I’ve also read it costs considerably less for a publishing house to produce a novel under 100,000 words. Apparently they use seperate templates for under/over 100,000. So you simply have a better shot of getting published if your novel is under 100,000 words. Not sure how accurate that is, but I’ll take any advantage I can!

      • Sander-Martijn says:

        Shantaram (David Gregory Roberts), The Mountain Shadow (same author), and 1Q84 (Murakami) are 3 of my favorite recent books and all hover around 300,000 words. So a novel can do it, it just has to be so damned good you can’t put it down, and that’s rare. Murakami worked up to it. Roberts probably got lucky that someone took the time to give a first novel of length that kind of attention.

        • Alex says:

          Hi Sander, I just looked up those books on Barnes & Nobles site. Shantara is listed at 944 pages, that puts it around 190,000 words. The Mountain Shadow is a little shorter, listed at 880 pages, making that around 180,000 words. Even 1q84 is listed at 1,184 pages, or about 240,000 words. All extremely long novels, especially considering most novels I pick up in the New Release scection hover at about 80,000 or less. But still a ways away from 300,000 words. Just for a reference the King James Version of the Christian Bible is listed at 1,360 pages. That doesn’t even hit 300,000 words. As you stated the above novels must be exceptional works or extremely established authors, or both, to get published at that length. I think one of the issues people have is mistaking an exception for a rule. Just because an exceptional author gets their 250,000 word space odyssey with their goldfish as the protagonist published everyone assumes word counts irrelevant.

          • Sander-Martijn says:

            Page number is a terrible way to estimate word count as it depends on the size of the pages, the font size, the font used (spacing, leading etc). So to be specific – Shantaram is 292,640 words. The Mountain Shadow is 272,800 words. 1Q84 is 292,640 words. So yes all are under 300,000 words, but barely.

          • Sander-Martijn says:

            btw given that the word count of Shantaram and 1Q84 are exactly the same I do have a small amount of doubt of the veracity of the source, but I’m sure it’s close.

          • JOHN T SHEA says:

            Most published books average closer to 300 words per page than 200. The King James Bible is over 780,000 words.

  • Cheryl says:

    I think that editors and publishers have specific expectations about the length of the novel more than readers do. I don’t think readers generally care as long as the novel keeps them reading!

  • Word count is negotiable. If the publisher has a convincing argument for cutting a passage or two, the book will be shorter. If it has areas that need further explanation the word count will go up.
    Keep an open mind and make your case.

  • The method I use is to write until I run out of things to say, then STOP.

  • THANK YOU – now let me violate every one of these…..

  • Wendy says:

    The thing you have to keep in mind is the cost of production. Sure, readers will READ all sorts of lengths, but they only want to SPEND so much money for the story. You may enjoy an 800-page story just as much as a 200-page story, but when you get to the checkout, do you want to have two stories for your money, or one? If debating between trying one of two unknowns, who isn’t going to settle on the cheaper one?

    At our library’s recent Afternoon with the Authors, I was about to buy a fellow author’s book about local medicine plants–until I saw her price tag. She had wanted color photos of the plants (understandable), but that resulted in her 80-ish page 6×9″ costing $35 (in B&W, it probably would have been an $8 book). Uh, no.

  • Renee Daniel Flagler says:

    All I can say is Thank You!!

  • Belva AGreen says:

    All this is excellent information to keep for reference, but I am wondering about short stories in an anthology.
    How many words in an anthology might be economically publishable? How many stories included? How many words in an average story included in an anthology?
    Thanx for your time and trouble.

  • Brandon Wilks says:

    This is a fair beginners number guide. While many people point out exceptions to the rule, and I’m sure there are many. If someone writes a YA novel at 200k word count, it’s unlikely to get many looks.

  • Edward Pearson says:

    Thank you for all these lovely comments that allowed me to procrastinate for a few more minutes from actually writing. 😉

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