Writing a novel? Awesome! If you’re like me, you’re probably keeping an eye on that little “word count” ticker on the bottom of your screen, wondering to yourself, Is this going to be long enough to count as a novel?
Turns out, there are rules to the game of writing. A novel's definition is a little more specific than just “a long story with chapters”, and it’s important (in my opinion) to set a clear word count goal before getting started. Setting a word count goal will help you pace the action and also give you a target to shoot at. As always, there are exceptions, but, hey … might as well know the rules before breaking them.
So … what are the rules?
Let’s start with youth fiction. Besides genre, the reader's age plays a huge part in determining how long the novel should be.
Starting with young readers, ages 5 to 8, books are usually in the neighborhood of 20,000 words, according to most literary experts. Think about books by Beverly Cleary, E.B. White, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume.
If you move into the middle grade range, ages 9-12, you are going to hear a lot of opinions and no concrete rules. Some of my favorite middle-grade books are super long even by adult standards, clocking in at over 100,000 words, while other classics are very brief, only a couple hundred pages. What’s the deal with that?
According to most agents and editors, the generally accepted range for middle grade fiction is somewhere between 20,000 and 55,000 words. Anything longer than that demands a convincing excuse (for example, a complex fantasy world which requires extra description).
The novel's length should reflect the age of the reader—the younger the reader, the shorter the book, generally speaking. You don’t want to scare nine-year-olds away with a massive, thick volume, and you don’t want to insult twelve-year-olds with a tiny little pamphlet of a novel. Put yourself in the shoes of your reader, write as their peer, and the word count will mostly take care of itself.
The world of YA fiction is another one that is very flexible. However, editors and agents seem to favor the 55,000 to 80,000 word counts for regular young adult novels.
The thing about YA fiction is that fantasy and science fiction are wildly popular subgenres within this category, and both require a much longer word count, having anywhere from 90,000 to 110,000 words. It takes much more time to develop a world from scratch and therefore produces a longer novel.
For a good example, Mortal Engines is somewhere around 94,000 words, because it has to establish a foreign, steampunk world while simultaneously telling the story. Even though this is a long novel by normal YA standards, it needed to be exactly that long to tell the story.
That’s the biggest piece of advice I’ve seen from editors and agents—don’t obsess over the word count. Just write the story the way it needs written and don’t make it any longer or shorter than it needs to be. If you’re wrapping up your YA book and it’s only going to be 50,000 words, don’t try to write a bunch of fluff to make it “long enough”. Just write the best book you can and let the length decide itself. Your instincts will serve you well.
Although I don’t discuss adult fiction too much on this blog, it’s worth mentioning here for reference’ sake. The ideal length for almost any genre of adult fiction will be in the 80,000 to 90,000 word range. According to experts, this range is completely safe in the eyes of any editor and will never scare a publisher or agent away. It’s viewed as the perfect length because it’s long enough to give your reader their money’s worth, but not so terribly thick and heavy that they are scared of dropping it and breaking their big toe.
A subdivision of adult fiction is the novella, which is considered a “short book.” The Old Man and the Sea is a classic example. A novella is simply a hybrid between the short story and the novel, falling in the 30,000 to 60,000 word range. The difference between this and a youth novel is obviously that the target audience is still largely adult.
In adult fiction (or any other genre, for that matter,) it’s always possible to tread into the 90,000+ territory, and I’m told that editors will not necessarily be worried by the length—if the novel is compelling. When you push 100,000 words, now you’re either a masterful author who crafted such a complex, gripping saga that readers will gladly swim through 500 pages to finish your novel, or you just don’t know how to edit. Editors are a little more hesitant when hefting a massive manuscript: every single word better be perfect.
To put it all into a quick reference list:
Young readers: 20,000, more or less
Middle grade: 20,000 to 55,000 (although some say up to 65,000 is still totally safe)
Young adult: 55,000 to 80,000
Adult: 80,000 to 90,000
Fantasy or Sci-Fi: 90,000 to 110,000 (for most age ranges)
Novella: 30,000 to 60,000
Short story: 30,000 or less
There you have it. Now that you know the rules, don’t feel boxed in by them. Let them be a rough guide for you and just write the best novel you can. After all, nobody stopped Tolstoy from publishing his novel with 587,287 words ...