How Many Words in a Novel? Word Counts by GenreAug 13, 2023
How many words should your novel be? Many of us will spend months, if not years, coming up with a spectacular plot and incredible characters. You might set out to pen a contemporary novel that beats Colleen Hoover at her own game or a crime novel that has readers turning the pages faster than Gillian McAllister’s Wrong Place, Wrong Time.
While a spellbinding plot, brilliant characters and an unputdownable premise will certainly make an agent or editor sit up and pay attention, an often-overlooked aspect of writing a novel is the question of how long it should be.
So you head to Google: How many words in a novel? What is the perfect word count?
As part of our blog series this month where we answer your publishing questions, The Novelry editor Krystle Appiah explains why your word count is important, how many words your novel should have based on the genre you’re writing in, and provides tips for editing your novel when you know precisely how long it should be.
There are some writers who subscribe to the notion that a novel is as many words as it needs to be, but the answer is typically a little more complicated.
It depends on what type of novel you’re writing – and there’s no such thing as a typical novel.
So back to Google: How many words are needed for fantasy novels or science fiction or thrillers or a romance novel? As we’ll explain, there are different parameters for every genre and every type of story.
Are you writing a picture book? Then you’re probably aiming for around 500 words.
What about a sci-fi or fantasy novel? That will be way at the other end of the scale.
Did you begin writing a straightforward mystery novel that grew into an epic 450,000-word whodunnit with twelve point-of-view characters, a supernatural subplot and a magical realism tangent for 100,000 words in the middle? Then it’s probably time to rein it back in.
Three reasons why your word count matters
Yes. It might be frustrating, but word counts really do matter. Readers have expectations! If someone has read several novels in one genre, they will have an idea of how many words a novel in that space should be. If yours is tens of thousands of words under or over the average word count that your reader is expecting, this will naturally be met with raised eyebrows or a good measure of suspicion.
Shorter novels are (typically) easier to sell. While this can be frustrating for writers who have dedicated countless hours to crafting a story, the unfortunate truth is that readers are less likely to pick up an 800-page novel than a book that’s 300–400 pages long. This is in part because a longer novel requires a bigger time commitment, and not one every reader would be happy to make.
Longer books tend to be more expensive to produce. With the spiralling cost of paper, shipping and the various other costs involved in producing and printing novels, publishers do consider a novel’s word count when making acquisitions. A massive novel is trickier financially and, therefore, is seen as a riskier proposition. They may also take it as a sign that a writer is unwilling to edit their work or may assume the writer doesn’t understand plot, pacing or structure.
While there are exceptions to the guidelines below, remember that your job as the writer is to tell the story. And every word written needs to do just that.
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
―William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style
Word count guidelines
These are aimed at babies, young children and those not yet able to read. They are made up of brightly coloured illustrations, and though some are wordless, most picture books have short, easy-to-follow text that works with the pictures to tell the story. Sometimes these stories rhyme, but it is worth noting that rhyming texts are difficult to translate, so many publishers prefer non-rhyming picture books.
Middle grade novels are aimed at readers aged 8–12, and mark the transition from children being read to or reading with adults to children reading independently. While they overlap with chapter books, which are aimed at children aged 5–10 and have a word count of approximately 5,000–20,000 words, middle grade books are generally considered a step up.
A caveat! Writers often cite Harry Potter books here, but these stories are much longer than an average middle grade book and should be considered industry outliers.
Young Adult (YA)
YA (or Young Adult) novels are written, published and marketed to a target audience of readers aged 12–18. A typical young adult novel features diverse protagonists facing changes and challenges. These novels are often shorter than adult fiction, although not necessarily by much. It’s worth noting that fantasy YA novels will contain more words to allow for world-building.
Take a look at our blog post on the difference between middle grade and young adult fiction for further information about these genres.
New Adult (NA)
This is a crossover genre that bridges the gap between young adult and adult fiction. Books in this category should appeal to both young adult and adult readers alike, and are often marketed to readers in both areas of the market. These books exist across all genres, so you may stumble across horror, contemporary books or fantasy, but they will be darker, racier and sexier than young adult books in these genres. The characters tend to be college-aged rather than school-aged characters and plot points may include moving away from home, first jobs and a deeper exploration of sexuality, gender, identity and other topics related to early adulthood.
This adult fiction genre is set in the modern-day world and deals with recognisable themes and issues that are a part of everyday life. These are novels written to appeal to a large or mass-market audience. You’ll want to focus on exploring your characters, giving them depth to make them feel like real people and to satisfy readers in this genre. Relatability is a key goal here! So while we don’t really talk about ‘average’ word counts, this genre is perhaps the most common and so the word count is fairly standard! Essentially, if you aren’t sure which genre you’re writing in, but your novel ticks the above boxes, aim for this many words. If you’re writing women’s fiction, it may sit in this category, although do consider those below too – historical fiction, for example, if your story is set in another time period.
A literary fiction novel focuses on the human condition and the inner lives of characters, and is strongly led by its themes. When editors read literary fiction submissions, one of the main questions they ask themselves is ‘Could this novel win a major literary prize?’ While commercial fiction editors are looking primarily for pacy plots and irresistible hooks, a literary editor is looking for prose that sparkles on the page.
Editors and agents will still tend to prefer a conventional word count of between 50,000 and 100,000 words for literary fiction, but there can also be space for shorter novels if they have expertly crafted sentences and are full of emotional resonance and thought-provoking themes. Bear in mind that literary editors still want their novels to be page-turning, so if you have written a novel over 100,000 words, it is worth asking yourself whether every scene has earned its place. If you have a draft of under 50,000 words, ask yourself if your novel has reached its full potential.
There are many sub-genres of romance novels, but these stories are always about a romantic relationship between two people – or perhaps three! The author keeps the love interests apart for most of the novel, but they eventually end up together.
Harlequin/Mills and Boon famously have a rigid word count for a romance novel. For contemporary romances, they want no more than 50,000–55,000 words. But for historical, they ask for 70,000–75,000 words. These books have a set formula that concentrates solely on the romance without a subplot, which is why the word count is smaller.
Authors of traditionally published contemporary romances and romcoms have more freedom to explore other characters and include subplots. However, the word count shouldn’t be more than 90,000 words. Any more will ring alarm bells for a commissioning editor, as it suggests the plot is probably rambling or too complicated.
Historical romances are generally longer, particularly those sweeping historical sagas set in exotic locations – Dinah Jeffries, for example, whose novels tend to top 120,000 words or more. This is because historical novels, like fantasy, require a certain amount of world-building, so more care needs to be taken with the setting.
If you are writing women’s fiction, do consider if your novel might sit in this section, too, and consider these guidelines to find the right word count.
Science fiction novels feature scientific ideas and advanced technological concepts, and can be set in the future, the past, on other planets or in different dimensions or universes. Science fiction novels cover a broad umbrella that contains multiple sub-genres such as space opera, military sci-fi, first contact, and many others. The length of your novel should reflect its scope.
Multiple perspectives with extensive worldbuilding featuring a vast array of different planets, species, factions and characters will necessarily be much longer than a single point of view, character-focused story.
If it is more on the literary side of the market, it should be shorter, while more commercial sci-fi will be longer. For example, Station Eleven is a multi-perspective novel with multiple timelines and wide scope yet is quite literary, so it straddles the word count spectrum coming in at just under 100,000 words.
Fantasy novels feature extensive world-building and can be inspired by myths, otherworldly concepts, imagined magic systems and ideas.
The average manuscript by a debut fantasy author shouldn’t sit at the upper end of this scale for a few reasons. When they are acquiring your novel, a traditional publisher will calculate the cost to print the book and, if it’s too expensive, they are less likely to make an offer.
From a creative point of view, a huge word count can be a red flag to agents because it’s very hard to sustain pace, tension and plot across so many words in a novel.
And finally, because the page length will be so extensive, a very long fantasy novel will be very hard to sell in translation (which can typically add 30% or more to the page extent). Most fantasy authors need to sell their novels in translation around the world to make a good living from their writing.
There are no hard and fast rules, but for your best chance of being published and writing a great and exciting story, word counts matter. We’d suggest an absolute maximum word count of 150,000 and an ideal word count of 120,000.
These stories are created in worlds that are similar to ours but also different in an important way. This important detail serves as a key plot point or detail of that world. As these stories are often grounded in a version of our own (alternate timeline, near-future, contemporary with a twist), there’s less worldbuilding required. They are often more literary and character-focused, which tends to mean shorter novels.
This genre involves pursuit and escape. The threats to the protagonist can be physical, psychological, or both, but they need to escape from, fight against, or best the danger or antagonist(s) in the story. In terms of the word counts, these novels are very similar to contemporary fiction (and often exist in a sub-genre of contemporary fiction) and so the same guidelines apply. There are examples of suspense that are above 90,000 words, but we’d suggest staying this side of 100,000 words when writing a novel in this space.
These are also known as ‘whodunnits’.
The central issue in a mystery novel is a question that must be answered; an identity revealed, a crime solved. These novels are characterised by clues leading to rising tension as we move closer to the answer to the mystery. This is a genre that values pace perhaps more so than any other.
You must make sure you are giving yourself the page time (i.e. the space on the page) to develop your characters and drop those all-important breadcrumbs. And yet you must also ensure the action is driving the narrative. So how many words? We recommend around 60,000–80,000 words for crime fiction because while it’s important to explore your suspects and lead your reader down red-herring-filled paths, you must never lose sight of pace!
These are scary stories involving pursuit and escape, and often supernatural beings or dark forces. They are claustrophobic novels with a limited cast of characters, so by their nature are shorter. A key element of these stories is a ratcheting up of tension through a tight plot where every scene and sentence counts.
The stories that have more fantastical elements and involve a variation of the quest narrative will tend to be on the longer side. This is where you need to consider the scope of your novel and the reader’s experience – a book with a limited cast in a single location would likely start to feel quite repetitive if it was longer than 100,000 words. The bestselling Mexican Gothic comes in at around 93,000 words.
It’s worth saying here that the biggest-selling authors such as Stephen King can write whatever word count they wish! As an author selling your debut novel, you will fare better if your horror novel meets the average length for the genre.
Historical fiction takes place against factual historical backdrops. Often, important historical figures are portrayed as fictional characters. The word counts in this genre can often run a little longer than in other genres to allow space for the rich historical detail and in order to conjure up a time that might be quite unfamiliar to our own.
However, you must be careful not to let all that world-building stand in the way of your plot and pace, and so for a debut, we suggest you don’t go over 100,000 words. Remember, if a reader just wanted to learn about the era, they’d read a history book; they’re looking to historical fiction to bring a time to life through a gripping plot and great characterisation, and so those aspects should take precedence.
A memoir is a non-fiction collection of personal memories related to specific moments or experiences in the author’s life and typically focuses on one aspect, such as addiction, parenting, adolescence, disease, faith, etc. Editors and agents are looking for memoirs that have the same immersive, page-turning storytelling that you find in fiction, along with hard-hitting themes, extraordinary people and deep emotional resonance.
Literary memoirs can be slightly shorter if the prose is truly outstanding, but a lower word count is less advantageous in an often challenging area of the market.
Tips for editing your novel to an appropriate word count
Wait a second. That’s a lot of words. How many pages is that?
You might be someone who thinks in terms of a page count, rather than a word count.
The words per page will vary depending on the format of your manuscript. For example, with a large font, you will have fewer words per page, and thus a much higher overall page count. You will also want to think about which font you’re using (because some take up more space than others) as well as text design, margins, the space between lines, illustrations etc. Also, there are differences between Microsoft Word and Scrivener (and, indeed, PDFs – which are used after the typesetting process).
However, there is an easy formula for the average novel.
Most novels will, when formally typeset and printed, have between 250 and 350 words per page – and very occasionally 200 or 400 words per page. We recommend dividing your word count by 250 to work out how many pages your novel will be when printed and bound.
For example, an 80,000-word fiction novel would be roughly 320 pages when printed.
This is typically when a writer will go to their shelves and start pulling out their favourites – but this is longer than average and was published and sold well and is successful! – and yes, there will always be exceptions. But particularly for a first novel, it’s important to follow the guidelines as much as possible.
Okay, I get it. My novel is too long. Where can I make cuts?
There are various reasons why a novel may be longer than necessary, so here are a few common issues to consider.
Firstly, if this is your first draft, don’t focus too much on the word count just yet. It’s worth knowing if your story is running too long or too short, but the initial round of edits should focus on improving the first draft as a whole – the plot, the pace, the characters. It’s important to consider how many words you’ve written, or still need to write, but focus on the bigger picture before considering how many words you need to add or lose in significant detail.
Firstly, if this is your first draft, don’t focus too much on the word count just yet.
Starting in the wrong place or adding unnecessary details
At The Novelry, we encourage writers to enter a scene as late as possible and leave as soon as the excitement is over.
It’s unlikely that the scene needs to begin when your main character wakes up in the morning and end when they go to bed at night. Readers are most interested in the significant thing that happens in a small window of their day – the place where the story happens. Readers can safely assume your main character has got out of bed and brushed their teeth without a paragraph recapping their morning routine. We can also assume they used the bathroom when they needed to without being told!
When might it be useful to show a character using the bathroom or waking up?
- If they wake up and there’s a giant monster dangling above their head.
- If they spot a ring on the counter and realise their other half is having an affair.
- If they discover a wallet peeking out of the basin, and this discovery sends them off on a three-day road trip where they make poor decisions that change the course of their life.
In other words, everyday actions are only important when they impact the wider plot in a meaningful way. If not, feel free to skip the loo break!
You haven’t killed your darlings
We’ve all been there. Sometimes you write a scene or a sentence in your first draft that feels like the best thing you’ve ever written – chef’s kiss – but deep down, you know that it has no bearing on your novel as a whole. While it can feel like the pinnacle of your writing career, self-indulgent prose does have a habit of weighing down a novel and adding to an unnecessary word count.
If you struggle with deleting, try setting your perfect sentences aside. Copy your favourite darlings into a folder labelled ‘Maybe Later’. Those wonderful words may not fit this story, but they may get their moment to shine later.
Whittle down subplots and backstories of unimportant characters
One strong subplot is better than two, three or four loose ones that don’t hold the readers’ attention.
The same goes for characters. If you find that a character barely impacts the story, see if you can merge them with another character or cut the four chapters dedicated to explaining their aversion to spinach – or even cut them entirely from the story.
Be wary of using too many repetitions
Plain and simple, repeating yourself inevitably causes a novel’s word count to creep up. As a writer, learn to trust yourself and trust the reader.
Once you’ve made a point, there’s no need to repeat it or circle back just to make sure it’s coming across clearly. Instead, stay focused on what’s driving the novel forward.
You can use a writing tool such as ProWritingAid to identify word repetitions on the page, but look deeper into the prose to see if you’re saying the same thing in two different ways. If so? Cut!
Hold up! My story is too short...
If you’re reading the above and panicking – because your story isn’t like these ones: it’s not too long at all; it’s far too short – then don’t panic! Because adding to a story is typically far more satisfying than subtracting. You get to ask interesting questions.
Where could there be more tension? Is there space for more characterisation? Would another subplot enhance this novel?
Don’t add unnecessary words or paragraphs, but work to really elevate your story with the extra words available.
Those of you who are writing with The Novelry can turn to your writing coach or to your editor to find out more about the specifics of the publishing market for your novel. And remember! We have close-knit relationships with our literary agency partners and can always field some questions in advance of our carefully managed submissions process on your behalf. So in the meantime, relax, aim for what feels right for your genre and your story, and we will ensure you are in great shape when it comes to nailing the word count that will please publishers.
Editor at The Novelry
Before joining us, Krystle was an editor at Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Pan Macmillan and home to authors including Marcus Rashford, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Tomi Adeyemi and Julia Donaldson.