“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.
- Flash Fiction: 300–1500 words
- Short Story: 1500–30,000 words
- Novellas: 30,000–50,000 words
- Novels: 50,000–110,000 words
- 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
- Picture Books: 300–800 words
- Early Readers: 200–3500 words
- Chapter Books: 4000–10,000 words
- Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words
- 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!