The Ideal Novel Length: Finding the Best Word Count
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
One of the most frequently asked questions by authors seeking publications is "How long should my manuscript be?" It's a hot topic for a reason - every detail matters in the publishing world, and length is one of the first things that an agent or publisher will see. This simple question quickly turns to anxiety as the neophyte writer stresses over whether her novel is too long or too short for consideration.
So what is the ideal word count for a novel-length work? Opinions vary on the topic, with different sources offering not just different ideal ranges but different sources for their information. Should you trust the analysis based on a small, self-selected sample over the one appealing to the wisdom of agents? Is that source from five years ago still valid? And given what we know about survivor bias, is any of this sound?
In an attempt to clarify things, I put together a small graph detailing what different sources identify as acceptable word counts for various genres. As you can see, the ranges are very wide on some of them.
Word Count Ranges for Novel-Length Works
Really though, what is the ideal word count? Unfortunately, there really isn't a simple answer. An averaging of all sources suggests that 80,000 words is a good length for any kind of adult fiction, with young adult running a bit shorter - 70,000 words or so.
However, there are a lot of asterisks in that statement. The late BookLamp project suggested that the average published book was longer than that, even in allegedly short genres like mystery. Then there's self-publishing, where length doesn't matter so much - self-pub books can be so short that they're not technically "novels" or so long that they'd fill a whole shelf in real life and readers don't seem to mind either way. And what about that novella trend from a few years back - is that still on? And how does any of this apply to serials?
The key element to remember is that novel length is more an issue of editing or marketing than one of writing per se. Don't make problems where they don't exist - length is something to sweat over after you have a finished draft, not before.