Word Counts: My Aha Moment
Lately I’ve been incorporating interval training into my workouts. When I’m at the gym, I use the interval setting on the treadmill. When I’m outside jogging with Reagan and my iPod, I alternate a faster and slower pace. Since it’s annoying to look at my watch, I use music to time my intervals. I might jog for two songs, run fast for one song. Or something like that.
So yesterday I was musing on the fact that it’s easy to use music to structure my run, since all the songs are roughly between three and four minutes. There are a few exceptions, but mostly, popular music consists of songs of a consistent length.
That’s when it hit me: Popular music consists of songs of a certain length. Popular movies fall within a certain range of lengths. TV shows have even stricter length guidelines, down to the second.
And I seriously doubt pop stars and screenwriters sit around bemoaning the strict “limits on their creativity” imposed by the entities that employ them.
The simple fact is, if you want to be part of a massive and well-established commercial system, you’ll create your art so that it fits into that system.
If you want to be creative without any limits whatsoever, you are absolutely free to do so. You can write all the 20-minute pop songs you want, you can create independent films of eight minutes or eight hours and nobody will stop you. But if you want to fit into a system, and expect that system to take risks on you and pay you, you need to offer them what they want.
I’ve written about word counts several times, and somehow, I always end up on the defensive as writers argue about their creative freedom to tell their stories in “as many words as it takes.” But I’m finished justifying established word counts in the publishing industry! I can’t see Joe Record Producer coddling songwriters who complain they can’t create songs in only four minutes, they need six. Joe Producer has 500 more songwriters lined up outside his door who will write the 3- and 4-minute songs.
If you want to be considered for commercial publication, you’ll need to start by fitting in with what the publishing industry needs, and you’ll need to give up the temptation to argue about it. As a brand-new writer, you have a choice: Do what it takes to publish commercially, or choose to remain independent and write on your own.
So here are my word count guidelines, once again:
Full-length fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 is ideal. I will look at manuscripts from 70,000 to 120,000 words, NOT outside of that.
Non-fiction: Usually about 50,000 to 70,000 words. I will look at proposals for books in the 45,000 to 80,000 range, rarely outside of that.
This post goes into further detail about word counts. Agent Colleen Lindsay also wrote a terrific and detailed post here.
I’m not trying to be all hard-nosed and rigid. I’m just tired of trying to defend something that’s not within my power to control. When you try to get published for the first time, there are already enough hurdles to overcome. It’s rarely worth my time, with a first-time author, to try and overcome the word-count hurdle on top of everything else. So please, if you’re submitting your work to me, make sure it falls within the word-counts I represent. Thank you!
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.
If people like you had there way, the likes of Moby Dick would never again grace mankind. The same goes for the music and film industries you use as unfortunate analogies.
>I've never found myself whining about word count. I had a 180k novel and brought it down to 97k. Now I'm just re-writing it to get rid of two things I discovered don't advance the story, and I feel like readers won't connect to my MC fast enough, so gotta fix that.
But for me, I usually don't like buying shorter works. It's a waste of my money, especially if it takes me only an hour to read. That's why I never bought any of Lemony Snicket's books. I wasn't going to waste thirteen dollars on a book that took me forty-five minutes to read. Hence, the library for shorter works. I buy my longer books at the bookstore.
>Phew! Thanks for clarifying that this does not apply to YA and children’s. For a couple seconds I thought that I had COMPLETELY offended you with a recent submission of ~28,000 words. Thank you!!
>There is always some sort of structure and rules to everything we do. Saying that limitations stumps creativity is, to be frank, stupid. The limitations aren’t there to stump your creativity – but rather to make your work accessible. You can’t argue with hundreds of years of history.
>Thanks, Rachelle, for a great analogy! I’ve written from the 50,000 word length to 100,000 (and had to cut some for the revised market plan), depending on my targeted market. For me, staying within the guidelines gives me some control and flexibility. I don’t have to think of everything, just my story. When I taught, I had parameters, too, and I enjoyed seeing how creative I could be within those guidelines.
BTW, whoever was looking for 50,000 word books – check out Avalon Publishing. They still have books in that length – romance, mystery, westerns, historicals. See if your library carries them.
>Thank you Rachael for your advice (a year ago) to resubmit my query per your guidelines. That request led to 9 months of sculpting my work and trimming it down by 52,000 words. And what an improvement – every minute of those long months of editing have been worth it!
>”I seriously doubt pop stars and screenwriters sit around bemoaning the strict “limits on their creativity” imposed by the entities that employ them.”
That statement could scarcely be less wrong.
>OK, this is totally reasonable.
>256. I think that’s the magic number of pages for a non-fiction book. It just seems like I’ve seen that number a lot in catalogs.
I wrote five 50k-word middle grade books for Barbour–word count dictated by the publisher. By the third one, I KNEW what a 50k-word book FEELS like. To write shorter stories is difficult. Thankfully, I’m working on a couple 60k-word YA novels now, and those “extra” 10k words feel luxurious. 🙂
>Hrm… and personally, I like having numbers to look at. I did NaNoWriMo this past November, and it helped to know exactly how much I had to go before I could stop for the day. So I’d sit and think about a scene and know that I wanted to finish it that day. I enjoyed knowing that I could finish some parts that day and not think about them for a while.
…I didn’t like writing parts of that novel. xD That’s why it’s my current sock-drawer project. 😉
Buuuut back to wordcounts. I don’t think of them even as a necessary evil. That 30,000 word gap between 70k and 100k gives you a lot of room to wrap things up. 🙂
>This is a great post, thank you!
>Word count is a pet peeve of mine–but as a reader.
I want to read 50K-word (or less) books. But there aren’t any. There are plenty of long books but I don’t want to read them. I guess I don’t have the attention span.
I have to read YAs out of desperation. Fortunately, YAs are really high quality right now. Unfortunately, many of them tend to be darker or racier than my preference.
It makes me sad. I’ve virtually stopped reading books.
Publishers, if you’re paying attention, there is a market for 250-page books!
>Exceptions never undo a rule. I think the “rule” is that exceptions prove the rule.
Thats my take and I’m sticking to it.
>You’ve obviously never heard the genius that is “Rapper’s Delight.”
14 minutes and 37 seconds of unadulterated awesome.
>Your words of gentle admonishment can be taken to heart in other aspects of writing to be published as well. Thank you for them.
As a writer for the children’s market, I am currently “majorly” rewriting my picture book as an act of obedience to what will sell in my market. …And I’m really enjoying the fresh change of writing. The feelings of joy will, in time, follow the obedient heart.
>Great analogy! Thanks for all your insights!
>Rachelle, I hereby put in my request that you don’t read my query letter around a.) any bachelor/jason related news and b.) any day that American Idol is on (just in case something stupid happens there too!)
I know, I know, I have no control over this.
Seriously, the whole bachelor thing has me floored. I will have to blog about it today and get it out of my system. BUT! Can we all say what a GREAT twist it would have made for a book?!?
-bachelor addict (possibly ex-addict…)
>This is definitely true for articles, also– especially for consumer magazines.
The first article I ever published, I wasn’t given a word-count with the assignment. I submitted a 3700-word piece, +2 sidebars. The editor responded with glowing remarks about the article, but– hey, we can’t print one this long. Shave about 1000 words off!
He went on to explain: there are certain, er, contexts where people generally read magazines, and these typically have a fixed length of time attached to them. We’ve got to write pieces that fit those time lengths.
Here’s what my article-writing experience has challenged me in as a book writer: are my chapters fitting into those same sorts of time periods? If so, I’ve opened up my books to a broader readership than just the folks who will sit down with a book for a long period of time.
>EXCELLENT post. 🙂 This is a great way of looking at it, thanks.
You’re right, totally Jason’s fault. At least you know the reason. 🙂
>Without word counts my novels would be al over the map. My novels range from 75-98k.
BTW, Rachelle, I received a rejection from you late last night after watching the Bachelor. I completely blamed Jason Mesnick for putting you in a negative state of mind, lol!
>”I believe it is silly to argue that we need more than 70,000 to 100,000 words to tell a story.”
I can tell my story in 70,000 words if I cut out all world building, description, half the arcs and most of the dialogue. Some stories just need more room.
>I am blown away everytime I read your posts about wanna-be published writers and their demands. Seriously, a writer will argue their word count? It almost sounds like one of my articles on teenagers.
Teenagers think they know it all, then will fight to defend themselves when you put your foot down.
If a writer desires to be published by someone there are rules they must follow. Your publishing house, your rules.
Otherwise, start your own magazine or publishing house.
Sounds to me that being an agent uses your parenting skills more than anything else…dealing with a few spoiled brats with entitlement issues.
>It is weird about book publishing. New writers, I think, only see the art of it but not the business. But if they want to be published, then they need to learn what works, what people want, and balance that with their own creativity. I think.
But sheesh. I can’t imagine a book longer than 150,000 words. Can that even be edited? LOL
>I’m sorry so many first-time writers have been giving you such grief, but I’m glad you decided to stop apologizing to them. Good for you!
If you ask me, they’re amateurs in the worst way, not because of their lack of publication status, but because of their complete lack of respect for you and the difficult work you do.
Colleen Lindsay complained on Twitter today about receiving a query for a novel that was 640,000 words long. 640k! I can’t wrap my head around that number. What are these people thinking?
I pray God gives you and all literary agents the patience to deal with such lunacy. It’s unprofessional in so many ways.
>**off topic** I am currently reading Robin’s McGraw’s book through Thomas Nelson’s Blogger Review program. Another example of platform via marriage. Anyway, made me think of you/your blog.
>I never thought of it that way, but you’re right. I have another name for enormous books–I call them wheel blocks. 🙂
>Thanks for this posting, Rachelle.
I’ve found that in rare instances publishers will make exceptions to the length of a manuscript.
Case in point …
With “We Who Are Alive and Remain, untold stories from the Band of Brothers,” (out this May 5) we originally contracted with Penguin at the standard memoir length, 80,000 words.
Since this is a compliation memoir with 20 of the surviving members of Easy Company contributing, we had so much fantastic material to choose from that the first edited draft came in at about 125,000 words.
I knew the publisher would never go for that length, but I didn’t want to lose a lot of great content on the cutting room floor, either.
After a few simple e-mails back and forth between the publisher and the agency, the publisher made an allowance for up to 100,000 words.
I think with front and back matter the final manuscript tips the scales at about 105,000.
The key for us was getting the publisher on board early and making a case for why this needed to be a longer book.
>I have learned more since I joined ACFW than all the years I took courses from Writers Digest. However . . . I think of the years between the first course I took and now so who knows.
>Really good parallel. Since I got my start in broadcast-writing and had to learn to write any story to fit in 30-seconds, I’ve seldom had to struggle with ‘too many words.’
I did have trouble with my first book that I knew would have a really specific format that would limit my word count. I asked in advance what the parameters would be, but they didn’t have the book designed, so they couldn’t tell me. My editor told me “just write and we can edit it later.” It was a LOT harder making my pieces fit the book later. For the next two books I just assumed a word-count of approximately what the first ended up, and it was much easier and a lot less wasted time.
Something I’ve always said that applies to writing (as well as many areas of life) is “there’s freedom within boundaries.” Even if the boundary is a word count.
>Does Writer’s Digest ever get anything right?
>I really LIKE having word count guidelines. To me, knowing my boundaries helps me to balance my writing and get a good idea on whether I’m doing ok on pacing. (I hate reading books that build and build, and then it feels like they wrap it up in a paragraph because they didn’t realize how close they were in word count.) That said, I don’t think we should *write* to a certain word count. I try, or am trying, to just write what the story needs, and when it’s finished, that’s when I go through and try to beef it up or slim it down as needed.
Curious, I went back and looked at my first completed rough-draft manuscript, and it was 97k, and that was when I had NO idea what a normal word count was. Since them, I added more and it was up to 103k, then I deleted A LOT during my “do not overwrite” edit and it’s now sitting at about 86-87k.
>I’ve heard that historical fiction can sometimes be longer, maybe around 110-115K. Am I wrong? I’m just curious.
Anyway, I completely agree with you about the limits. Most readers need a limit to how long a book is as their attention span wanes after a little while–even if the story is great (at least that’s how it is with me). Writers should realize that there is a certain limit to what will sell.
Thanks for the informative post!
>I caught an interview recently where John Grisham related a story about his friendship with Stephen King. King said something enjoying his “novellas.” Grisham retorted with a quip about wanting to read one of King’s books once he retires – when he’ll have that kind of time.
I guess once you hit their level of success you sort of make your own rules.
>I appreciate that Rachelle says this is how it is in the biz. Facts. And she shouldn’t have to apologize for the way things are.
However, just because some of you can’t appreciate the beauty of sagas doesn’t mean they are “overwritten” and should be “tightened” up. They’re a different breed of novel and still garner respect and admiration from those of us who love them. Just because they’re too expensive to produce and not trendy doesn’t mean those novels suffer from the flaws suggested by some of you. Just because many of the classics wouldn’t be published today doesn’t mean they still aren’t classics. I’d take a long story over some of these skinny little glorified short stories any day.
>Thanks for giving the link to your other post about word counts, Rachelle. I was wondering how you felt about word counts and gift books, and that post answered my question. Thanks!
>Call me crazy, but I love the challenge of meeting a certain word count. Love it. It’s the left side of my brain begging for equal time.
>Most first-time writers have a problem with over-writing. (I count myself among them.) It takes discipline to go through and trim out all unnecessary words and scenes. So any who bemoan the guidelines for word count should go through their manuscript and tighten like mad. The book and writer will be better for it.
>Compressing??? Would that I had that problem.
>There are always the exceptions (Meatloaf with his 8-12 minute songs) but you make an incredibly good point. And as muhc as I’m aure all artists from any genre would like more creative freedom, it just seems like either laziness or slippy writing to say you can’t fit your work withing a certain length. Shouldn’t compressing your work be veiwed a challenge, a way to make it better, and not a chore?
>Most publishers consider an adult manuscript of 50k words to be a novella, and they won’t buy it. Just the cold hard truth.
>Please note, if you’re writing fiction of 50,000 words, there ARE publishers buying that. But you’ll need to find them on your own and/or find an agent who sells to them. It’s not my thing.
P.S. The word counts in this POST do not apply to YA and children’s.
It’s wonderful that God is setting you freer and freer to say: “I am tired of apologizing for this. It’s how it is.”
I notice you are saying that more often lately, and it’s a healthy thing, don’t you think? You have boundaries set by publishers that you have to stay within; if you whined to them, they’d look at you funny or refuse to work with you because of an immature attitude, right? It’s okay to set boundaries for those you work with and for. It’s how God does things, and it works for Him!
As to the post, thank you for being so clear. I have been writing for years, have had quite a few articles and columns published, but am just now getting into book publishing. So, I appreciate clear cut requests like this. It makes my life simpler! Yayyyyy!
Generally speaking, I find it’s easier to cut a lengthy article or chapter and “leave the good stuff” as CRT said above.
>Don’t you love it when something just clicks? You’re right word count/timing is in everything, tv shows, commercials, songs and yes, books.. Thanks for sharing this aha moment with us. It definitely hit home.
>I like the idea of intervals set to music. Run hard to a short song, run slow to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Repeat.
>I don’t know. I get to about 50 to60k and find I am running out of steam. Can’t see how having too many words could ever be a problem.
To me, more words means I can cut more and leave the good stuff.
>I had a writing professor in college say that if you can’t follow word counts and deadlines, then you can’t write. If (as a wildly famous person) you choose to thumb your nose at the rules on purpose, that is different from being incapable of following them.
>I leaned to write novels with Writers Digest Correspondence course. They said paper is expensive, publishers want 60,000 words. So I wrote the novel, polished it and went to my first ACFW Conference in Dallas.
One of the editors sought me out and wanted to talk about my writing. But needed a minimum of 70,000 words. Preferred 80,000.
So I worked to add threads and bring the manuscript up to 77,000 words.
Went back to conference and had a lovely talk with another publisher. Bring it up to 90,000 words, she said and then we’ll talk.
So learn your target market. Who are your dream publishers? Your dream agents?
Just remember they aren’t talking 90,000 words of fluff.
>I have been writing articles for magazines, which usually run around 800-1,000 words. I found the exercise of condensing my rough draft very helpful. It has sent me to my longer writings to see where I can make them stronger.
Recently I entered a contest for a children’s story of only 150 words. Now, that’s a challenge!
>Nice reminder, Rachelle! With genre fiction in particular, I’m seeing queries coming in on a regular basis for books exceeding 200k, with polite notes telling me that I may cut them in half if I need to do so. Cutting the book in half isn’t MY job. It’s the writers’s. It feels like pure laziness when I get these kinds of queries.
Great post, as usual.
Say, I’ve heard that the typical minimum word count for the well-known publishers is 75,000 for a novel. Have I heard correctly?
Thanks for the post. Have a great day.
>Not a problem. I believe it is silly to argue that we need more than 70,000 to 100,000 words to tell a story. We have to leave out details, but the heart of every good story will fit in a 500 word synopsis. Once we have the synopsis, we just stretch the story out on a frame of whatever length we choose.
When I write, I use word counts/page counts so I know where I am in my outline. I start with my word count goal and position each point of the outline accordingly. Currently, I am on page seventy (18,050 words) and I know that Act Two is supposed to begin on page seventy-six. It looks like I may overrun that, so I will have to trim something. When I reach page 166, I will know that I have reached the midpoint, the fun and games is over and it’s time to wreck my protagonist’s life.
>Thanks for the article. Useful. I’ll be saving it for future reference.
>How interesting! I have read many books about sumbitting, but either never read or have forgotten an exact word count.