Each type of book has its own expected word count. From chick-lit to epic fantasy, from picture books, to middle-grade to adult, it’s often easier to find traction with agents, publishers, and even readers when your story length meets expectations.
All too often, writers end up with novels that are wildly outside the genre standard and are forced to drastically cut — or add to their novels.
But, before we can get into tips to fix word count issues, we need to talk about what these genre targets are. Let’s break it down. (Thanks, Writer’s Digest)
Word Counts By Category and Genre
The Default Novel Length
According to Writer’s Digest, these days, the average novel is 80,000-89,999 words, with some getting away with being as short as 70,000, and some being as long as 110,000. We all know the exceptions, but there’s a reason they’re not industry standard.
Westerns and Chick-lit tend toward the shorter side. Meanwhile, many memoirs tend toward the long end — although, it’s been said, that is often a sign that the author doesn’t know where to focus their novel and edit.
Before we go any further, just for your own mental calibration, 50,000 words is a 200 page story.
Science-fiction and Fantasy
Fantasy and science-fiction, because of the necessary world building sits a little longer, at 90,000 to 125,000, with 100,000-115,000 being the sweet spot.
Picture books, with their pictures and all, tend to be printed as 32 pages, with 8-pages on a single sheet, that is folded and cut to size. Because of this, there is not much wiggle room for length. 500-600 words is standard, with 1,000 words pushing the limits.
These intro-to-chapter-books tend to max out around 1,500 words, and usually still have pictures on many pages.
Be warned. The market for these is pretty heavily dominated by the publishing companies, with well established series and media-tie-in characters featuring prominently.
These are the next step after easy-readers. At 5,000-15,000 words, these are usually read by the 6-9 year-old crowd.
The market for these books suffer the same problems as Easy Readers, though. So, best of luck if you want to break into this market.
Middle-grade novels are aimed at those kids who have moved past chapter books, typically 8 to 12 year olds. They’re split into two groups, Upper Middle-Grade and Lower Middle-Grade.
Lower Middle-Grade is in the 20,000-35,000 words range, while Upper Middle-Grade hovers around 40,000-55,000 words.
A lot of stories, particularly many coming-of-age novels are written with young adults in mind, even if plenty of adults are devouring them.
55,000-80,000 is the standard. Some say you can get a little longer, especially in science-fiction and fantasy. But be wary.
Now that we’ve talking about expected word count, we need to address the elephant in the room. Knowing where your novel should be word-count-wise, is one thing, actually doing it is another.
I find that most writers fall into one of two camps — they either under-write and have to fill in the world, or they over-write and have to trim and tighten up their story. And of course, there are those that do both at the same time — too much description, too little character emotions. Too much emotional arch, too little action. Very few writers get it just right on the first try.
But, what do you do when your novel is significantly outside of the expected word count window?
When Your Novel Is Too Short
There are plenty of small things you can do — fleshing out scenes and descriptions, expanding on things you briefly touched on. But when you need a lot of words, you’ve got to do something more drastic.
- Add a new point-of-view character
A new point-of-view character should add a good third to your novel! Just make sure to avoid showing every scene from two points of view.
I know I like multiple-points-of-view novels best when they’re showing what the characters are up to when they’re not together.
- Add a new sub-plot
Give your main character something else to juggle — be it a deadline, a kid, family issues, or money woes. An additional struggle means additional words.
Or maybe the sub-plot is for a secondary character. You know, they have wants and needs beyond supporting the main character, and a good friend would give back when they could.
When Your Novel Is Too Long
On the flip-side, there are those stories that have grown out of control. You can always trim the story down, paragraph-by-paragraph. You can remove a tertiary character or ten. But when you’ve got more than a couple of thousand words to cut, you usually need to take more drastic measures.
Let’s start with reversing what I just suggested those under-writers do.
- Remove a point-of-view
Every point-of-view character typically adds another third to the novel — cut their point-of-view, cut the novel length.
- Remove a sub-plot
What you can do to lengthen a novel can be done in reverse to shorten it. Maybe we don’t need our main character to juggle that job, or have to deal with her brother’s issues on top of her own.
- Delete secondary or tertiary characters
Extra characters means extra description and actions and motivations. Removing a character can cut down on that a lot.
If you can’t simply remove them, see if you can combine them with another character. Movie adaptations do this a lot, because most novels have more than a 2-and-a-half hour movie can show.
- Delete scenes
Maybe you don’t want to do the surgery required for the other options, maybe you’ve tried them all and you still need to trim. In that case, it’s time to remove some scenes from your novel.
Drastically cutting your novel is not for the faint of heart. But, never fear, you’re on the blog of a chronic over-writer. You wrote all of your scenes when you were feeling creative and artistic. They grew from the fertile soil of your imagination. Clearly, they’re all there for a reason and it’s a struggle to pick which of your scenes — which of your children — to cull.
That’s why I try to apply a little logic, to justify the loss of a scene to myself, if for no other reason. (And of course, I save old drafts, just in case I find a new purpose for that scene, later)
3 Steps To Cut Your Novel Down To Size
- List out all of your scenes, with a 1-2 sentence description. Scenes. Not chapters.
- Rate each scene, with 1 point for world-building, 1 point for progressing the character’s emotional arc, and 1 point for advancing the plot.
- Examine the scenes that got 0-1 points and decide if:
- The story can stand without the scene
- The scene could be added to, to make it do double duty
- The scene could be combined with another (underperforming) scene to bring them both up to snuff.
And that’s it. That’s how I cut my first manuscript from 131,000 words down to a slim 79,000. (Well, it’s back up to 90,000… but that’s a different issue.)
Drastically changing the size of your story is hard, but no one ever promised you that writing was going to be easy.
Have you ever drastically changed the size of a story?
Did you use these techniques? If not, please share what your decision process was.
Thanks for reading, and check back next week for more writing tips and writerly musings.