How Many Words Are “Just Right?”
Manuscript editing involves much more than correcting grammar. A book editor should be familiar with various genres and know the ballpark word count recommended for each. I’m often asked, “How long should my nonfiction novel/memoir/biography/fantasy/historical/novella be?”
I could easily suggest 55,000 to 100,000 words, but that’s too easy. Each genre has its own industry standard. Knowing the industry standard is key.
I must shout out an excellent blog post by Chuck Sambuchino at Writer’s Digest — one of the best at explaining word count requirements. Sambuchino’s recommendations are as follows, but visit his article to see the entire scope:
Adult novels (literary, mainstream, women’s, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller, horror): 80,000 and 89,999 words
- Sci-fi and fantasy: 100,000 – 115,000 words
- Middle grade fiction: 20,000 – 55,000 words
- Young adult fiction: 55,000 – 79,999 words
- Picture books: 500-600 words (32 page count)
- Westerns: 50,000 to 80,000 words
- Memoirs: 80,000-89,999 words
In fact, check out the Reader’s Digest website for writing tips, manuscript editing tips, and some great interviews with authors and literary professionals. I’ve been a fan of the site forever.
Another Good Source
By the way, I’m also a fan of The Write Life, which is filled with inspiration and advice for writers. Blake Atwood at The Write Life also weighs in with word count recommendations, and goes a bit further by breaking down subgenres. Check out his article in its entirety to get the full low-down on word counts.
• 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
More on Manuscript Editing and Word Count
Although I suggest authors produce word counts within the suggested frames, there have been instances when word counts broke barriers.
Question: What book series has spanned the highs and lows of word counts?
Answer: The Harry Potter series.
Take a look at the disparity:
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — 76,000 words
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — 85,000 words
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — 107,000 words
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — 190,000 words
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — 257,000 words
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — 168,000 words
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — 198,000 words
Emerging authors should stick with recommended word counts. Once you have a literary agent, or have successfully self-published, you may have some leeway regarding the length and robust aspects of your manuscripts. However, remember that industry standards and literary guidelines exist for a reason, and readers have come to expect a specific book thickness when they order online or pick up a copy.