Words, Words, Words. Who keeps track? Writers!

By Jill Amadio

Words, words, words. More than three million of them.

That’s how many a Tamil in India wrote. Granted, the words were spread over 26 volumes but still, quite remarkable. Chinese authors wrote lengthy books, too, while contemporary writers like J.R.R. Tolkien confined himself to a mere 558,003 words to complete The Lord of the Rings.  J.K. Rowling wrote 1,084,170 words in the Harry Potter series. Carl Sandburg threw half a million words onto the pages of Remembrance Rock, while Stephen King prefers to write long, and his thriller, It, has a whopping 1,138 pages for a paperback price of around $30.  A bit heavy for reading in bed. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is around 500 words under 50,000, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace that everyone thought to be the longest book in the world offers 587,287 of text.

I was curious last week as to word count while putting the finishing touches to my 9/11 novel. Based on a true story, I found, to my horror, that the manuscript only contained 61,000 words. I know for cozies that is acceptable but anxious to check out what the going word count was for novels these days I went online to research.

Happily, the consensus is that the majority of publishers are content with a range of 50,000 to 100,000 of an author’s polished prose. One site claimed that anything over 40,000 is acceptable. However, books by C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and George Orwell among others were bestsellers with books under that number of words.

It actually depends on genre. A literary novel, one site tells me, and by the way what the heck is a literary novel as all writing is, by definition, literary, no? No. It turns out that literary fiction must be intellectual, have depth, character and style. Surely, mysteries fit right into the middle of those requirements.

Publishing industry standards can vary. Authors of romance novels typically write between 80,000 to 100,000 words, and science fiction and fantasy can exceed 140,000. Westerns are, surprisingly, shorter, between 45,000 and 75,000, and novellas can be from 18,000 to 40,000 words The Reedsy blog site points out that a too-long word count is a symptom of a major plot or pacing problem.  First drafts can usually tell us whether we’ve overstepped the yardstick, and where to cut. Most editors warn writers not to edit their manuscript until that first draft is complete, and keep an eye on bringing too many characters into your story.

It is tempting to include extraneous material when your write about a favorite hobby or pastime you love but it’s a no-no for publishers unless it’s a theme like knitting, baking, or cheese. Frankly, I enjoy learning something new and my current read, The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths is an archaeological mystery that briefly explains many of the basics of the discipline in dialogue, the perfect place.

Thus armed, I began to edit my latest novel’s first draft and found I was right in the ballpark of acceptable word count. Of course, if you are going to self-publish with KDP, or other places, you can make up your own rules. But if readers expect a certain number of pages in your series it makes sense to adhere to that. Another point to keep in mind is that if you are adding an audiobook to your editions it could require a rather lengthy listening period that could get tiring.

A godsend to writers is the software that continually counts your words as you write and at the same time posts the page number you are currently on. A few writers I know never look at those results over periods of days or weeks in order to be wonderfully surprised when they finally do take a peek. Or not. They say that being required to produce or eliminate a certain number of words is soul destroying.

As several authors have commented when considering word count: “When it’s done, it’s done. When the tale is told, it’s told.”  End of story.

10 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words. Who keeps track? Writers!”

  1. Great post, Jill, not to mention timely for me as I revise my pre-published novel. You make valid points about rules and expectations when it comes to word count, which writers often forget – evidenced by the last quote. Alas, some writers fall in love with their words, their stories, their characters, and lose their objectivity. I think it comes down to quality, not quantity. A good read keeps me engrossed to the end and wanting more, no matter the page count. p.s., loved the quote on the accompanying picture.

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    1. Thanks, Miriam, a word count is a basic element to consider but most of us forget, plus guidelines are meant to be sidestepped sometimes.

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  2. My 24 books fit into many categories, but they do sort of follow your guidelines. The latest Chance McCoy book, Another Chance, due out next month weighs in at 88,892 words. It is a series of short stories just like the the first one, Second Chance, that had 81,334 words. The three spy novels are much weightier; one of the stand-alone novels, Closer, is at 98,858. But it is good to know their are averages out there. Thanks for giving us a heads-up, Jill.

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    1. Thanks, Miriam, a word count is a basic element to consider but most of us forget, plus guidelines are meant to be sidestepped sometimes.

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  3. Good post about word count! In the past, I’ve tried fitting a story into an expected word count. Hasn’t worked. Alas, it’s the tale, the number of word used to tell it, I think.

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    1. Quite right, Madeline, we shouldn’t be trying to fit a story to a word count but unfortunately publishers – at least the five Big Ones, tend to stick to the guidelines.

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  4. In fairness, publishers may enforce a minimum and maximum word count for cost considerations. Some readers won’t shell out full price for a slimmer than standard book, cutting into sales, while a higher page count costs more to print.

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  5. Jill, another really helpful post! After frustrating initial lack of any response from my first novel submissions, a publisher at a conference pointed out that agents would not even read a pitch with a 120,000 length of a first novel. They’re so inundated with submissions that they have fast rules to reduce their workload. So I took out 25,000 words -keeping them for the next book. It also made it a much tighter story. Thanks for a great post.

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  6. Thanks, Rosemary.
    I know that cutting can be painful but now you already have some great material for the next book. It is tempting to write more than the acceptable norm, especially if we want to “get it all in there” but, although I despise the term, “less is more” because it lacks clarity, it really is in many cases. Good luck with Lottie.

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