Word Count Confusion

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Did you know that every little detail you include–or leave out–in your book proposal reveals something about you? That’s why we stress on this blog that you need to put as much effort into preparing it as you do writing your manuscript. One of those details that results in a keep-reading or an instantaneous reject-now response from the agent or editor is your word count.

Yes, the word count you provide on your summary page communicates more than the fact you know you need to include it. It shows how well aware you are of the acceptable range for your genre and that you have complied with it. It’s especially important for debutWord count authors to get this right.

Publishers don’t arbitrarily designate these varied ranges for mysterious reasons or to be difficult. A number of factors go into the equation that include a balancing of the following:

  • the cost of goods (COG) to produce a typical book in the genre
  • the average sales potential based on recent history for the genre
  • the reasonable length needed to write a compelling book in the genre
  • the price readers are willing to pay for a book in the genre, based on historical sales data

It isn’t an exact science, and in some cases there is good reason for going outside the normal range. But here are some general word count ranges to target in the genres our agency primarily represents.

Adult Fiction: 75,000 to 100,000. Historical novels are at the top of the range because of the historical detail that is necessary to include. Contemporary and suspense should be somewhere between the lower end and somewhere near the top end.

YA Fiction: 45,000 – 70,000

Middle Grade Fiction: 30,000 – 40,000

Novellas: 40,000 – 50,000

Nonfiction: 40,000 – 55,000

Narrative Nonfiction and Memoir: 40,000 – 50,000

YA and Middle Grade Nonfiction: 40,000 – 65,000

A word count that is much lower than the acceptable range alerts the agent or editor that your novel or nonfiction book probably hasn’t been adequately developed. A word count that is much higher than the average range tells the agent or editor your work probably needs to be tightened. Excess words, phrases, paragraphs, or even whole chapters need to be trimmed. Not only does that work fit your book within the acceptable range, but it most often also results in a better book. You want to address these issues BEFORE you submit your proposal. The word count range can be a helpful tool for you.

Your word count is one of many details in your proposal the communicate volumes of information to the agent or editor. If many of you indicate you are interested in a refresher on creating a proposal, I’ll reserve that topic for a future blog.

Where does your WIP fall in the range for your genre? In what ways do they help you as you map out your book?

TWEETABLES:

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75 Comments

  • Heidi Kortman says:

    I would appreciate information on the newest ways to build a proposal. Thank you.

  • I’m lucky – I used to write for professional journals, in which word count limits are strictly enforced. Pictures, graphs and tables all have word-equivalents, so there was always a little counter running in my head.

    Yes, along with the hamster on his wheel.

    In fiction, I usually hit my target pretty closely. It may come from having read a lot of novels, and having a well-developed sense of the right ‘path length’ for a story.

    One technique I use is to write the ending when I’m 50-70% through the narrative. This gives me a ‘bucket’ in between to fill, and prevents me from getting too wordy toward the end. (I find that as I come to the conclusion of a story, and the pace begins to quicken, I prefer a slight tightening of the pace, and I assume other readers do as well. Description is pretty well finished – the end is the time for action.)

    • “the end is the time for action”.
      Well, having read your work, yuh huh, is it ever!!
      I STILL think about that scene when the hero finds the person (trying not to do the spoiler thing here) in the umm, well hidden hole, and WOW!!!!
      Your work is heart pounding! Holy smokes.

    • I like this technique, Andrew. I’m going to have to try it.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Good suggestions for mapping, Andrew. I agree that when a writer has done a superb job of maintaining the tension throughout, readers are eager for a tight ending. That is not the place to slug down the pace with excess words.

      • A novel is a bit like a rollercoaster. You need lift hills (character development and backstory)to build potential energy for the kinetic parts of the plot.

        The current trend of action on page 1 is kind of frustrating – there’s no way the characters can have depth, so much of the potential early identification with a protagonist is lost. It’s a cheat. There’s no initial lift hill to build anticipation for the first drop.

        Movies can get around this, at least in part, visually. A winsome, appealing character will engender immediate sympathy, and can quickly be placed in peril to build a viewer-character ‘bond’; ‘shared’ danger brings closeness.

  • My first completed draft slid in just under 128K.
    It’s a good thing I described every detail of every living being in the entire history of time. As we know it. And then some, because we don’t know everything, huh, riiiiight?

    I sent an edit to the lovely Christina Tarabochia and got back a significant amount of track changes. And the very interesting phrase “I don’t usually do this, but I just couldn’t help myself”.
    At the time, I was so beyond clueless that I truly believes she loved my work so much she couldn’t stop herself from editing it.
    However, I was SLIGHTLY wrong. Just, an nth. Okay, ‘catastrophically out of my mind’ wrong.
    So wrong, I actually admit it.

    I changed my name to Wordy McWorderton and went to work learning how to tone it down.
    Slightly.
    Ish.
    Kinda.
    A bit.

    See a pattern?

  • When I initially researched a word count, I was looking at tween/young adult. I was advised 65K would be great for a beginner. But I see that mine definitely falls into the middle grade (tween) … and I still shot for the 65K. My heart sank when I read your word counts. Mostly because I can’t think of anything I’d want to omit from our story … and the wording is fairly tight (I write for a magazine, and always tighten my words). And my daughter is 13 … if it were any shorter, she’d read it in a day. And she’d probably cry if we had to omit anything.

    Well, I and my downcast heart may be back to the drawing board. I do hope there are some exceptions to these rules. Grin.

    • And it is fiction. But based on a nonfiction story. Ha!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Shelli, yours may be one of those for which there “is good reason for going outside the normal range.” Or, yours could fall solidly in the YA category, for which your current word count is in line. And middle graders who are interested in reading will read “up.” When video games first entered the scene, middle graders weren’t that interested in reading books. That may be why publishers began publishing the shorter books–to entice that age group back with shorter, quicker reads. I suggest you visit a bookstore and look at other books similar to yours before you start slashing.

      • Okay, Mary. I know the bookstore pretty good. My daughter loves the Warrior series. She read them all, which is what inspired me to write this. But I also just needed to write. Bizarre as that sounds. The Warrior books are fairly lengthy and for middle grade … but she LOVES the long ones … huge books. The length of them might compare to a Harry Potter book … those satisfy her. She has been reading Warrior books for years … my oldest daughter, too (even though in middle grade, my high school daughter still loves them). Those thin books you see in the bookstore … say, Ramona series, wouldn’t satisfy either … they’d finish it in probably an hour. So I thought I was shooting for middle ground. Not so short she would read in a day; long enough to last at least two days with her.

        I won’t cut just yet. Though I do know there are places I could cut that wouldn’t bother me.

      • Oh Mary … I read somewhere that there may be a new group forming of 8-14 year olds. I know that is so near the 7-12 age range … not sure about that. I wonder what you think about that. I think my book would be loved by that age group … especially kids that still love reading animal stories/adventures. I think it would depend on the maturity level of the child.

    • My suggestion would be to find a couple of crit partners, and ask them to specifically look for places in which the story can be cut.

      If they don’t find anything, then go with it as is. Be true to the vision God gave you.

      We often fall in love with aspects of the stories we write, because we’re speaking to ourselves, giving ourselves answers that we could not find any other way.

      These are great…but they may speak only to us, and be a bit mystifying (or worse, pedestrian) to someone else.

      The beauty of the modern era is that you can cut a lot away…and then offer it to readers as ‘deleted scenes’ on your website! So it won’t be lost.

      • Thank you, Andrew. I do have a teacher friend with an 11 year old girl who loves to read. Bless her heart, she even read my nonfiction book. And I thought about having her read it for me. Give suggestions. I don’t have a crit group … I need one.

        There are definitely some places I could cut. I’ll wait a bit … I’ve been editing again … almost halfway through. I think I’ll start marking areas from here on out that could possibly be chopped.

        I love your idea about salvaging deleted scenes. I know I’ve said it before, but you always encourage me. Thank you.

  • Chuck Heintzelman designed StoryToolz that offers FREE resources for writers. One of those resources is a Word Count Meter (WCM). Before I began my middle grade novel, I looked up the word count for the genre and entered 35,000 into the WCM as a goal. I add how many words I’ve written each day to StoryToolz and it updates the WCM for me. I was able to place the HTML code on my blog to create a banner that updates as I go. You can see it in my sidebar at http://littleshepherdchildrensbook.blogspot.com/

    While I don’t allow myself to get too hung up on the final word count for my first draft, I feel this helps me focus my writing.

    I’m definitely interested in a proposal writing refresher.

  • Crystal Ridgway says:

    My historical romance manuscripts usually average at around 80K. Although as with everything else in life, there are exceptions. One I recently finished was 90K, another 73K. When I first started writing, I rambled. A lot. Now I try and evaluate to make sure that I keep my wording tight, especially in my action scenes.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Crystal, not having read any of your work, I can only offer the reality that a 73k or 80k word count for a historical novel will communicate to agents and editors that your book may be shy on appropriate historical detail or thin in some other area.

      • Crystal Ridgway says:

        Mary,
        So if up to 80K is shy of a good word count, then what should I strive for? I try to make my mss rich in historical detail, especially because I set them around the area that I live. I pour myself into creating a intriguing, fast paced page turner, which means I have less internal than dialogue and action. That’s probably where I fall short in my word count.

      • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

        Crystal, this is where being in a critique group, in which some of the writers are a little further ahead than you would be of great benefit. Why not seek one out. Another suggestion is to attend a writers conference and get a paid critique from an editor. I hope these suggestions are helpful.

      • Kiersti says:

        Piping in here–not that I’m an expert or anything–but my first “final” version of my first historical novel ms. was about 77,000 words. I had a bit of a feeling that this was a little short, but I seemed to have “told all the story” I knew. After a rejection with some detailed feedback, I realized I actually hadn’t taken the story “far enough.” I added several months and some significant plot points to the story–as well as deleting the form and timing of the original ending, though not its heart–and ended up with close to 94,000 words. It was that version that led to the blessing of being a Bookie, though not yet a published one. :) But every story and writer are different, so I don’t know if that’s helpful at all to you, Crystal! Just thought I’d share. :) Like Mary said, people who’ve read your work would probably be most helpful to brainstorm with. Blessings on you and your writing!

  • I’m so glad you shared this info, Mary–something I wish I’d read before my very first proposal ever went out! Now that I’m indie, I can determine my own word count and do what feels normal for the story, but you are SO RIGHT that you need to hit that acceptable word count when you’re submitting! Otherwise, I suspect you look like you don’t even read the genre you’re writing (which I hadn’t, way back when I submitted that adult paranormal years ago…). Very helpful post!!!

  • Happy, happy birthday, Mary! Prayers for a wonderful and blessed day! :)

    My most recently completed manuscript falls in the low end of adult fiction. I appreciate how you spell it out, Mary. I find word counts incredibly freeing because they give me a goal, a frame for developing the characters and the story.

  • Is it your birthday, Mary? Happy birthday!

  • Thanks for this list of word counts! Saving to Pinterest right now. ;)

  • Thanks for laying out these guidelines, Mary.

    When I drafted my latest m/s, I pumped out 110,000 words in 3 months (a first for me)! But I wasn’t worried since I knew I was just getting the story on paper. Sure enough, through the editing process, I trimmed 15,000 words and got it within its acceptable range. :)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Sarah, that’s an average of 5,000 words every weekday. Impressive. First drafts serve that good purpose you described. The word count provides a barometer to guide you for the next draft.

  • Thanks Mary for sharing. I can see that mine is a little short of what is expected. Oh no…

  • When writing my historical novels, I aim for 100,000 words and often go over by a thousand or two. It’s helpful for me to aim for this length as I plot, because I know I need to write approximately 60 scenes at 1,500 words a scene. Some scenes may be a bit longer, and some a bit shorter. I have a spreadsheet I created using Susan May Warren’s excellent workbooks, and it helps me to keep my story within the boundaries of my word count, while including all the necessary story elements.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Gabrielle, thanks for sharing how you plan your scenes and approximate a word count for each. It’s helpful to be orderly and organized like this when mapping out the book. It can save lots of confusion and angst. Susan May Warren’s workbooks have been helpful to so many writers.

  • Thank you so much, Mary for this! I recently finished my memoir and it’s a little shy of 40k. I thought I read that memoirs needed to be longer so I had contemplated on querying agents with it. I really feel I was meant to read this. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the word counts, this is helpful. Although I’ve noticed that different houses seem to vary by quite a bit. At ACFW I had one editor say that they wanted YA between 30,000 and 65,000 words and another editor told me he wanted YA that was 90,000 words. My current WIP (a YA historical) just hit 76,000 words. It was 61,000 and then I went back and revised with my crit partner. Ahhhh, ah well. Once I get the revision finished I suppose I could do a cutting revision after that, right? And yes, I would be interested in hearing what you guys are looking for as you read proposals. Would be helpful.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Kristen, you pointed to the reason there is confusion about word counts. Those on my list are a middle of the road normal. But you’re right. Some publishers deviate from that. I know of one publisher that wants no more than 85,000 words for a historical romance, based on their production costs.

      You also point to one of the great benefits of attending at least one writers conference a year. It’s where you can introduce yourself and query editors on their current requirements.

  • Lynn Hare says:

    Mary, thanks for the blog post. When I shared my nonfiction book idea with Nick Harrison, I told him my goal was 40-45,000 words. He said that would be a long shot because it’s too short. Nick said the typical nonfiction books Harvest House releases have 60-75,000 words.

    I see you recommend 40-55,000. Is the higher count specific to Harvest House? What have you seen with other publishers?

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Lynn, 75k seems a bit high to me for nonfiction, but the book’s topic is a factor too. Again, the word counts I listed are general targets, and there may be a necessary reason for a nonfiction book to be more in-depth. As a general guideline 40k is on the low end, and 70k is pretty close to the high end for many publishers.

  • Happy birthday to you,
    you’re a gem through and through,
    with encouragement and wisdom,
    based on faith, the Word true!

    Happy Birthday, Mary, and thank you for the support you give us, every week.

    We appreciate you!

  • Mary, thank you for bringing up this topic. I’m writing a memoir and after creating the structure for my book, I decided to aim for 72,000 words. I based this on information from others who have published memoirs and those who coach memoir writers. I place a lot of trust in your guidance, so I’m wondering. Is the lower word count you give a new guideline or perhaps a specifically Christian memoir guideline? I know a lot of memoir writers are self publishing, so perhaps that explains the discrepancy. I’m working on the proposal for my memoir simultaneously, so I’m grateful to have clarity on this now, rather than later. I continue to learn so much by reading this blog.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Susi, memoirs are a little tricky to pin down a word count. 72k seems a bit long for a memoir. Traditional publishers will always weigh the four factors I listed into their equation. The challenging part for a writer is that a memoir is nonfiction, but it’s told as a story. As such, it generally requires more word count than a straight nonfiction book because it employs fiction techniques. The writer must determine the main theme of the memoir. If the word count is way over a general ballpark range, the writer must decide if all parts are essential to the main theme or if some pieces which, though interesting, could be eliminated because they don’t really reinforce the main theme. See what I mean that it isn’t–can’t be–an exact science?

      • Yes, thank you for this thorough explanation, Mary. It all makes perfect sense. And, thank you for the reminder to stay off the rabbit trails. As I think about the popular memoirs I’m currently reading, I realize they can’t be more than 40,000-50,000 words. I’m going to dial down my word count.

  • Anita Mae says:

    Since we’re talking word counts I’d like to add to Cheryl’s comment about word count meters. There are several out there that do a great job. I use the basic NaNoWriMo one found at http://www.languageisavirus.com/nanowrimo/word-meter.html#.Uw-rjsKYbIV although you can find them in several eye-popping designs.

    There’s also an app called Writeometer which I use on my android tablet, and is probably available for iphones, etc.

    And if you’re a member of ACFW, try the Novel Track writing and editing loops which not only add up your word count for you, but give you the advantage of being encouraged by other Christian writers.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Anita, thanks for these helpful tools. Do you find tools like these save you a lot of time and reworking of your manuscripts as you get further into the book?

      • Anita Mae says:

        Reworking? No. My crit partners help me in that department because I tell them if I’m over or under the total word count and they tell me where I should cut or what I can add to enhance the story.

        I’m a visual writer and the word count meters show my progress so I have the satisfaction on seeing the story advancing. They spur me on.

        Also, ACFW’s NovelTrack helps with accountability. I tend to produce more when I know I’ll be reporting my word count at the end of the day. Seeing the others post their scores encourages me to write that much more. Blank pages can’t be counted, nor can they be edited, so the theory is that writing anything is a forward step and should be counted for something.

  • Carrie Wible says:

    Glad I read this! I’m writing my very first novel, and thought 50,000 was acceptable due to the NaNoWriMo expectations! Now I see, for my horror novel, I need at least 25,000 more words…

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Carrie, don’t add words just to up the word count. Every word in your manuscript must add strategic value to the story. That’s why word count ranges can’t be set in stone. One novel may be complete in its best form just under the range. Another more complex story might need a higher than range word count for scenes necessary to bring resolution and redemption.

  • Linda Sandifer says:

    I’ve read that adult fantasy can exceed 100,000 words because of the nature of world-building. What is your opinion?

  • Debbie says:

    Hi Mary, does this word count also apply to MG fantasies?

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Debbie, fantasies in general tend to need a higher word count than other novels. And that is acceptable as long as unnecessary words, phrases, paragraphs, even chapters has been trimmed and tightened to the best shape possible.

      • Debbie says:

        Thank you so much, Mary. One last question. Is there a word count in mg fantasies that one shouldn’t go beyond? I appreciate your time.

  • Okay, slightly odd…but maybe not, question. When a book is translated into another language, how do pub houses approach that language difference when it comes to word count? The phrase “lost in translation” definitely comes into play here.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      The more important thing is that the most exact meaning remains intact. Maintaining the word count isn’t the critical factor. Two words in English may be translated by only one word and so on. In the process translations often are not exact. That’s where the phrase “lost in translation” applies.

      • Ohhhh. I totally knew that. (Not at all.)
        “Lost in translation” can also mean what happens to gringas when their Bolivian pastor friends say say “tu gusto sopa?” and I think they mean soap and I make hair washing motions and say “Si, mi gusta sopa” and I end up really saying “yes, I want to wash my hair with soup”.

        :D

  • My motto is:

    Story comes First

    Word Count comes Second

    Authors Ego comes Next to Last

  • Thanks for this information. I’m bookmarking it for reference!

  • In my proposal for my first book I stated it would be 90,000 words. (I had no idea.)

    Amazingly, I got a contract. For 60,000. Bringing it down to size made it far better.

    I’m now writing on Scrivener software which helps me set targets and see daily word counts. Clarity about the targets helps a ton.

    A maximum of 55,000 for non-fiction strikes me as low. What are the variables in terms of genre, audience, or publisher?

  • Hi Mary! Happy belated birthday!! :)

    I’m writing a dual time period novel (contemporary & historical – WWII) so would it fall under the 90-100,000 range as well?

    I’m currently downsizing it now because it is well over 115,000 words. I originally wanted to write it in two books but duos do not seem to be the norm for publishers thus I’m trying to condense it all to one novel.

    Any advice is appreciated! Thanks! :)

  • Thanks for the post, Mary. Mine are:

    Non-fiction 1: 42,000
    Novel 1 (Bible era): 154,000
    Non-fiction 2: 44,000
    Non-fiction 3: 43,000
    Novel 2 (sports): 90,600
    Novella: 33,200
    Novel 3 (travel; China): 79,000
    Novel 4 (in progress; sports): shooting for 80,000; at 57,000, and suspect it will be 85,000 when done

    Since I self-publish I have less reason to hold to publisher-expected word counts, except to the extent these also reflect reader-expected word counts.

  • Mary, I think my biggest question about word counts is how does a writer best estimate word count for a proposal for a non-fiction piece when only two or three sample chapters are submitted? While the rest of the book is outlined, I find it really difficult to know with much accuracy how many words will actually end up in the remaining chapters.

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