February 10, 2013

Word Counts

Although industry standards exist in theory, defining different types of fiction based on approximate word counts, no one seems to agree as to where exactly the distinctions lie. As far as I have found, very general guidelines, not considering genres, are:

  • Micro-fiction : up to 100 words
    • The shortest example is attributed to Hemingway and consists of only 6 words.
  • Flash fiction (aka "short short") : up to 1000 words
    • Some sources don't differentiate between the above categories
  • Short story : up to 7,500 words
  • Novelette : up to 30,000 words
    • Some sources don't use this category, defining short stories as up to 20,000-30,000 words
  • Novella : up to 60,000 words
    • 60,000 words is also considered a full-length, young adult novel
  • Novel : 75,000-100,000 words
    • What happens between 60K and 75K? (I don't know.)
    • Some say novels, particularly in science fiction or fantasy genres, can reasonably reach 120,000 words.
  • Epic : over 120,000 words
    • Longer word counts like this are also considered appropriate for sequels.

Some editors, agents, and publishing houses have more specific guidelines.  A rule of thumb for a first novel seems to be: do not surpass 100,000 words.  

The very basic explanation for word count limits when it comes to novels is that word count affects the literal size (page count) of a book which in turn affects printing costs.  Word count standards also manage genre-specific reader expectations, and they affect visibility on a bookshelf – a novel that is too short has a skinnier spine and can therefore disappear when placed among thicker books.  I have also seen the argument that readers want to receive "more" story for their money, so skinnier adult novels are less likely to be selected by a casual browser.  At the same time, novels that are too long not only cost more per item to produce, but may also intimidate casual readers in genres where those lengths are not standard.  There is also the consideration that exceptionally wordy novels require an exceptional level of writing to maintain the same level of interest throughout.

What this ultimately means for a writer is that, all other considerations being equal, an agent or publisher may choose to work with a manuscript that falls within the specific word count range that she/he/they prefer.  Ideally, manuscripts that do not quite hit the target range but which are close (for instance 102,000 words) but which otherwise have promise would not be rejected solely based on word count, but the fact is, as a writer, we never know.  I'm certain some agents or publishers out there reject queries solely based on the number, though I believe this means that entity is interested primarily in selling product, not in supporting quality work, which brings up the question, would we really want our work – our carefully written novels – in that entity's hands?

Nevertheless, reaching or staying within the limits of preferred word counts does mean having one less obstacle on your path to publication.


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