Ah, the sweet taste of victory. You’re very excited to have finished your brand new Middle Grade novel and just put down work 314,251 on paper. What sweet relief. Now all that’s left do do is edit it and send it off to a publisher. You’re sure they’ll love your epic saga about a boy who lost his dog. You send in the query letter to editor after editor after editor… but no one responds back? Why? WHY HAVE THE GODS CURSED YOU SO? How dare they not love your 300k masterpiece of tragedy and woe designed for young readers? What could have possibly made them not want to take on your book? Word count, my friend. Word count.
Why does word count matter when writing a novel?
The genre that you are writing in determines how long your novel should be, and if your manuscript is too far over or too far under word count, publishers and agents won’t take it. It is INCREDIBLY important to know what word count is appropriate for not only your genre but also the age range that you are writing for. Not only will an enormous amount of words be too much for some readers, but many publishers and agents just flat out will not accept a book if it does not meet certain word count requirements. Take the time to research your genre and age group before starting to write your book so you don’t make a horrible mistake and write too much or too little.
What are the word count requirements for each genre?
Each genre has specific word counts that you should be aiming for every time you write. Not only is this great for NaNoWriMo (knowing to not start a Middle Grade novel for NaNoWriMo is always a good thing), but it will also increase the likelihood of your books getting published. Here are some general guidelines for each different genre and age group and what you should be aiming for!
Adult Novels – 80k to 100k
You really want to stay in range for this type of novel. Adults want a long, engaging and deep storyline with many plot twists and a lot of detail. If your work is any shorter than this, it may be not detailed enough. This will leave your readers bored and wanting more. Too much (between 100k and 110k) may be too much information, though still passable. Some publishers may publish an adult novel at that length. If it’s any longer or any shorter than that, don’t think about it. 80k or less won’t be engaging enough and 110k or more will be WAY too much information. This word count applies to many different genres in adult fiction: literary, women’s, romance, mystery, and horror.
Adult Sci-Fi and Fantasy – 100k to 110k
These genres tend to have a lot more detail involved, so are allowed to be a little longer. You have entire worlds to build while writing these books! Fantasy and Science Fiction readers will EAT UP whatever you give them, so don’t be afraid of nitty gritty details here. A little shorter or a little longer is all right here too. Just be wary of books that fall under 90k. These books may be lacking in detail and will leave readers wanting more, and over 110k will overwhelm them. Because of the sheer volume of information that could fall into these kinds of books, keeping within the word count is ideal.
Middle Grade – 20k – 55k
This category has huge variety simply due to the subject matter of the book. Harry Potter style narratives can have more content and therefore a higher word count, whereas something that’s more of a Magic Tree House narrative may be a lot shorter. These books are aimed at 12-year-olds, so don’t go overboard. May kids can’t sit and read something that’s much longer than 50k, so keep that in mind. Also, if the books are shorter than that, the kids will be disappointed that the adventure was that short (and maybe feel a little insulted). These books often resemble YA in terms of how the storytelling is styled, so can be loose, casual, and a quick read.
Young Adult Fiction – 55k to 80k
This is another category with flexibility when it comes to word count. Science Fiction YA and Fantasy YA are going to sit at the heavier end of these categories, whereas slice of life will sit at the lower end. You never really want to go below 47k in this category, because it will simply be too short. Going any higher than 90k is also just playing with fire. Many YA readers are busy with school and work and don’t have time to read immense, lengthy novels. If they did, they would just pick up an adult fantasy. These books should be fun, casual, and quick to read.
Picture Books – 500 words
Seems short, doesn’t it? Little guys reading small books don’t have the attention span to read any more than that. These books are often around 32 pages. Anything more than 700 words is likely to scare away agents because the word count simply isn’t appropriate for tykes.
Westerns – 50k to 80k
These types of adult novels are not as descriptive as Science Fiction and Fantasy and can sit at a lower, more casual word count. My personal aim for this kind of book would be a solid 65k. This will allow you to get in a fair amount of detail while still keeping the story fast-paced and interesting. Yee-haw!
Memoir – 80k – 90k
This book should be easy to fill out in terms of word count because you’re writing something that actually happened. What can start as a stream of consciousness about your life can easily get out of control, however, so don’t go overboard with words. Any less and the memoir is lacking. Bill Clinton wrote a famously long memoir. Don’t be Bill Clinton.
When should I worry about word count?
The ultimate goal of crafting your masterpiece is to write the best story you can possibly write. While a wacky word count WILL dissuade agents and publishers alike, you shouldn’t let it inhibit your writing process. I use it as a ballpark goal, but don’t beat myself up if I don’t meet the exact word count. The entire goal should be to have a story with great pacing, nice flow, and also the appropriate length If your story is coming in WAY under the guidelines, you should be worried and maybe reconsider ways to beef up your book. On the opposite end, if your book is way OVER the word count, cutting back may be necessary. At that point, you can hire an external editor to help you cut out unnecessary bits or maybe help split your book into two novels.
Why should I watch my word count?
One of the main reasons you want to watch your word count is for the sake of agents. When you’re asking an agent to publish your book, you’re virtually asking them to blindly trust that your product will sell. They have to make sure that the book is appropriate for the market, has relevant subject matter, good prose is well-written, AND is an interesting read. Because marketability is so important, word count will directly sway agents in regards to your manuscript. Not all editors are like this. Some of them are more about the story and the quality rather than word count, but other editors think otherwise. It’s just always best to stay within your word count rather than shoot yourself in the foot and miss out on a potential agent.
Writing is like juggling a lot of plates. If you don’t have a word processing software that displays word count (Google Docs, for example), I would highly recommend purchasing software that actively shows how big your manuscript is. Having a good word count goal not only will help your book fit in with others on the shelf, but also will help you set goals for yourself. By dividing your book’s word count into weeks, you can determine how long it will take to write. Everybody wins! So, now that you know how long your book is supposed to be, what are you waiting for? Get out there, and happy writing!