The Long and the Short of It: Book Lengths/Word Counts

When I first began blogging several years ago, one of my writing students asked “Is there some guideline about how many words are in a chapter? Or how many words make up a novel? I know NaNoWriMo is 50K, but is that the standard?”

The only standard things about 50K are:

  1. that figure is the one the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo or even NaNo, has decided is doable, yet still a challenge to accomplish in one month (November).
  2. that 50K number is considered by most publishers, editors, writers, etc., to be a “short” novel.

Still, as I continued teaching and writing, the question continued to come up. 50,000 words, or the “short” novel length, is actually a pretty good number for early Young Adult (YA) books and often Romance novels. No War and Peace need apply. And even Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, has declared a book of only 50K should more rightly be called “novelette or novella.” And he still lets all WriMo’s claim to have “written a novel” without any complaint.

Chapter lengths are usually at the discretion of the writer; though, if you are writing YA books, I’d probably keep most of the chapters at an easily digestible length fairly short. The same might hold true for romances as well.

If you want to look at the “rule breakers,” many of our old standard and great novels run far beyond the 50K. More recently, think Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson. The rule here is if you write well enough, you can get away with anything. Even in YA fiction, you have to acknowledge the scale-tipping tomes by J.K. Rowling.

One of my older writers’ books went out on a limb to give specific figures for particular ages: Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, NY: Writer’s Digest, 2001. Please note the date there. That said, things may not have changed all that much: at best, this was only meant as a general rule of thumb:

  • Picture Books…….3-7 yrs……….(could be 0 words) …………24-32 pages
  • Easy Readers……..7-9 yrs………1,000-1,500 words…………..32-64 pages
  • Chapter Books……7-10 yrs…….1,500-10,000 words…………40-80 pages [8-10 chap]
  • Middle Grade……..9-12 yrs…….10,000-16,000 words……….64-150 pages
  • Young Adult………12+ yrs……..16,000+ words………………..120-150 pages

And, BTW, that 0 words for picture books? They seem to sell well, if you have enough “story” that can be told by pictures alone.

Other sources have broken ages down even more with various word counts:

  • Toddler……………………….0-500 words
  • Preschool…………………….200-1,000
  • 4-8 yrs………………………500-1,500
  • 6-9 yrs………………………2,000-9,000
  • 7-10 yrs…………………….10,000-20,000
  • 8/9-12 yrs………………….12,000-25,000 — This & the next item have over-lapping ages
  • 9-10/13 yrs………………..20,000-40,000
  • 12+ yrs……………………..25,000-60,000
  • Young Adults…………….40,000-80,000

For adult books, the sky’s the limit — what can your writing do to hold the reader through 100K words?

Nonfiction word counts will also vary, but may be somewhat lower. (For ease of estimation, a double-spaced page can hold approximately 250 words or slightly more, so four such pages would be about 1,000 words.

The age of your target audience is another way to consider book length. We have a plethora of names for different “age” levels, as publishers continue to split and refine their definitions.

  • Picture books: intended to be read to the child
  • Easy readers (and similar designations): for very young, still learning, readers
  • Chapter books: children ready to read more complex stories
  • Middle Grade (MG) may include grades 4 through 6
  • Tween:    those “beTween” childhood and teen age
  •  upper elementary to early middle or junior high
  •  may be grades 5 – 7
  •  some 8-year-olds think they’re Tweens too
  •  categories: light romance/friendship drama
  •  not the drinking, drugs, sex found in some YA
  • Young Adult (YA) Usually edgier, now broken down into
    •  lower or upper teen
    •  the older the reader, the darker the story

I’ve heard some editors/agents say write for the younger teens 12-13 OR write for the older teens 15-18

Wait! What? What about 14 year olds?

I’m told THAT book will die at the first reader’s desk in the publishing house

“They” say don’t write for 14-year-olds who will read for “older” teens, as ready.

My general rule of thumb is look at the age of my main character (MC). Most kids like to read about others a year or two older than they are. A 13-year-old already knows what 13-year-olds say, think and do. They want to know Awhat comes next?@ That would mean if you’re writing about a 15-year-old, 13-year-olds would/could be your audience.

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