Writing a Book? It’s All in the Numbers.

Michelle Ule

Blogger:  Michelle Ule

While Janet continues her time away from the office because of her husband’s death, I’m filling in for her today.

A friend asked me once how many words I had to write to complete a novel.

My answer: How ever many it takes.

That’s not quite true. Numerically analyzing the necessary length of a manuscript falls to genre and style, but good writing involves rhythm. I have four pointers (plus a bonus!) to help you to calculate the best way to figure out your project.

1. Find your genre to calculate your story length.

Various genres have conventions as to length of story.  They vary somewhat from house to house and among subgenres, but generally speaking you would expect a women’s fiction to be about 85,000 words, a light romance should clock in around 50,000-60,00 and a historical novel usually touches 100,000. A larger list (from 2010) can be found here.

Science fiction and fantasy can be anyone’s guess; they tend to be longer since they depict new worlds.  The same is true of historical fiction because the author has to describe a time and place most of us no longer know.

Nonfiction self-help or Christian living generally are about 40,000-50,000 words long.

Speaking from the agenting end, we can usually tell a beginning novelist when their project’s word count is outside conventional numbers. Sure, J.K. Rowling did it with her later Harry Potter books, but she stayed within the  norm on the first several books she wrote.

You can do anything you want with subsequent books, if you sell a gazillion copies of the first book or two.

2. Compute the length of your average chapter.

My chapters generally run 1,500-2,000 words. At 250 words per page (using Times Roman 12 and one-inch margins), that means they’re usually six to eight pages long. Sometimes, however, I incorporate more than one scene in a chapter and thus the number may double. (I use three asterisks to divide the chapter into two scenes: ***. I try to make each scene the same length.)

For nonfiction, shorter chapters generally work better. Readers like to “take a break” by moving onto the next chapter. Ten pages per chapter is the norm. You better have some pretty compelling reason to make a chapter 15-20 pages in length.

Obviously, the length of a chapter depends on the type of manuscript you’re writing, the amount of description you use, and how you’re telling your story or making your point. Your personal writing style and voice will dictate that–not me.

Generally speaking, you should aim to have all your chapters approximately the same length, give or take a page or two. Your reader expects a rhythm in a book and that includes the length of the chapter, as well as the frequency of switching between points of view for fiction.

If in writing your manuscript it feels like it should be two long chapters and then a one-pager, that’s fine as long as you keep up that pattern throughout the manuscript. If you can’t keep it up, rework the chapters.

3. Keep an eye on what your paragraphs look like.

When I open a book I’m reading for fun, but the first page is all one paragraph, I close it.  Maybe it’s my age or my experience, perhaps my eyes, but I don’t want to read such a dense manuscript. I can glance at the page, not even take in the words, and that will tell me if I want to continue.

Obviously, plenty of people think and read more deeply than I do, but for the average reader, who spends a lot of time reading short spurts of copy on the Internet, lengthy paragraphs will be too daunting to be comfortable.

If your book isn’t “easy” to read, the leisure reader won’t stay with it.

I personally like dialogue, even in nonfiction as stories are added to illustrate a point. So if  I glance at a page and don’t see any dialogue, you’re going to have to really wow me with exquisite writing.

A better approach would be to balance between the two–but you already know that.

Some people prefer prose and aren’t looking for dialogue–match your writing to your genre. Historical fiction, perhaps, can get away with denser paragraphs because they’re describing things people need to picture. Dialogue has a specific place in nonfiction; so readers look at a page with a different mindset than a novel reader.

Light romance, though, needs quick and flippy paragraphs.

4. Check the rhythm and flow of your sentences.

The length of sentence determines the speed at which the reader reads.

Short sentences go quickly.

Long, convoluted sentences slow down the reader as he takes time to embrace and picture every idea you include.

Depending on the genre, you need to match your sentences to the style. Quick, short sentences can build tension. Long, lugubrious sentences can allow the reader to cozy into their chair and relax.

5. Bonus: Can these types of number predict a best-seller?

Some people believe a best-seller can be predicted by a numerical analysis of the project using a complex algorithm focusing on word complexity and sentence length. Try it. You’d be surprised at what you’ll find here.

Long or short? Complex or simple? What have you observed about your rhythm and writing style?

33 Responses

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  1. Jeanne T says:

    Michelle, I appreciate your post. I haven’t thought a ton about the numbers end of writing. I know enough to stay within house guidelines. You’ve answered some of my questions keeping scene lengths the same and chapters about the same length-wise. I’ve been wondering about that.

    I’m finding as I revise my ms, that I probably need to even out some of my scenes. My goal is to try to stay pretty close to a specific word count for each scene, but I’m finding it hard to chop parts of some scenes to bring them into submission. 🙂

    I’m also trying to make sure there’s good white space on each page, including good dialog to move the story forward. Rachel Hauck has said “tell the story between the quotes,” and I’m trying to do that. This gives a good balance between white space and letter-dense paragraphs. At least that’s my goal. You’ve given me something to ponder today. 🙂 Thanks.

  2. Michelle Ule says:

    Again, Jeanne, the length of chapters needs to be approximately the same not precisely.

    I also find when putting together my work, that the middle chapter often has a major event which alters the story and often is a little longer.

    That pacing gives rhythm to the project–provides a change of pace that marks the movement to the end. I don’t plan it that way, it just happens in the course of the story telling.

    Use tempo changes like that to effect the story as a whole.

    It’s like using four long paragraphs of description and then a new one five words long.

    The difference makes those words/images “pop” out for maximum effect.

    Happy writing!

  3. Michelle, thank you for this great information.

    I got a little worried when you mentioned that your chapters are eight pages long. Mine are 15-16, but then you noted the importance of consistency and rhythm. That, I can say, is happening. I hadn’t planned on my chapters being about 15 pages long. The chapters are based on plotting: Chapter One-intro and inciting force, Chapter Two-first major complication, Chapter Three-next major complication / plot twist, etc. It seemed to be a happenstance that they are about the same page length, but your post has reassured me that maybe I’m on the right track.

    In regards to dialogue and narration, as a writer and a reader I, like you, feel there should be a balance. And a page-long paragraph! As a reader, I don’t want to read it. As a writer, it’s a sign that I need to revise and edit (and yes, I have written page-long paragraphs, but they have never remained that long).

    Balance and varied are important with sentence length too, I think. As a reader, I would to see both, not one or the other.

    Thank you for the links. They are both helpful. I’m writing YA fantasy and I keep reading that word counts for fantasy should be high because of world building. I think that my novel will end up being about 65,000 words. I’ve been afraid that it would be rejected as too short, but I don’t want to pad it just to meet a word count. Your post helps me to feel confident that what I need to do is to focus on writing an excellent story and let the word count worry about itself.

    I’m still praying for Janet and for all of you at Books and Such. Blessings.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts » Christine, write the story the way it comes to you and when you’re done look at it. I’ve gone back on a manuscript and broken a long chapter into two and rearranged things, but often I can’t see it until I’m into the storyline.

      I’m not an expert on Sci Fi/ fantasy but everybody else in my family is, and it’s interesting for me to see the thin Sci Fi books my husband loved 40 years ago and compare them to the fat Dune-type books my daughter read this summer. I’d guess–and it’s a guess–for YA your 65K may be reasonable, but obviously, it’s all about the story.

      And balance. I’m a musician; balance is important with the designated surprised tossed in to keep the reader and listener guessing! 🙂

      Thanks for your prayers.

  4. Lynn Dean says:

    Great post! Since I’ve just finished plotting a new story and am beginning to flesh it out, this is timely info for me. Thank you.

  5. Hi Michelle. Insightful post as usual. 😀 Thank you.

    I am currently struggling with the word count issue. I have a completed my first fiction historical fiction manuscript, which ended up with 112,500 words. I have heard that for debut authors your manuscript needs to be less than 100,000 or publishers will not be interested.

    I have done two edits so far, which have shaved it down from 117,000 to its current count. I am doing another edit now, so perhaps I can slim it down a couple thousand words. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts. Should I buckle down and get it under 100,000 words? What do you think? I am scared that I may be forced to downsize something that shouldn’t be cut.

    Also with consistency in chapter size, I have a unique situation with my novel. It moves back and forth from the present day to the past. The present day chapters tend to be shorter than the past ones, but the chapter lengths vary throughout both.

    I have already had good feedback from nearly 10 readers that the chapters all seem to lead well into the next. Do you think it would be worth the risk to keep them as is or make myself go back and add in information just to make them longer?

    It’s confusing. I don’t want to be a rule breaker, but it’s hard to discern between a writer’s personal style and when they break the rules. Sorry to throw all of these concerns out here, Michelle. I appreciate any advice you can give. Thanks and have a great day! 😀

  6. Michelle Ule says:

    Morgan, the closer you get to 100K, the better your chances of finding a publisher, especially if you are a debut novelist.

    This is my non-agent, non-editor opinion.

    If you examine my post from last week, the value of a word census, you might find a ways to hone more excessive words from your manuscript.


    OTOH, you might examine the manuscript to see if you can spilt it into two books– then, of course, you could expand some of the subplots.

  7. Lisa says:

    Do you think the fast past of our society with twitter, short blogs, facebook posts and just general immediacy to get to what we want, make readers more impatient?

    On the computer its so easy to just click to the next thing if you lose interest. Is it more difficult for writers to keep the attention of readers if their story is not concise and quick-paced? I have found myself rewriting and rewriting, because I worry if its engaging enough of that fast-paced motion with a quiet, more inspirational voice.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Lisa » Absolutely, Lisa. I call it “google brain;” we’re so used to getting information in a fast manner, we get impatient if the sentences go on a long time.

      That’s not true of everyone, of course, but I know I can’t handle lengthy paragraphs anymore. I want them 3-5 sentences long and then a new paragraph. (Though that was true of me 20 years ago as well).

  8. Fantastic observations, Michelle.

    I’ve witnessed a change in my writing style over the past year. My sentences and paragraphs have shortened. I think of C.S. Lewis’s writing advice: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Caroline @ UnderGod’sMightyHand » Got to love C.S. Lewis; very true. Ernest Hemingway used to talk about writing simply as well. He really crafted his sentences and looked every single word–which also why it took him so long to write!

  9. Michelle,

    Great and timely post as always. I did an edit after I read your post last week on words like “that” – I cut out 463 ‘thats!’ Couldn’t believe it…and now reading my WIP again, I’m finding other words like ‘suddenly’ and ‘just’ and ‘then’ – argh!

    Thanks again,

  10. This is interesting! I love formulas and guidelines in writing because it gives me a foundation. As far as length, I try to stick to 10-12 pages per chapter, with around two scenes. It usually gives me around the same ending word count for my manuscript and therefore lets me know how many words I need to write a day to get a project done in a certain amount of time. Great point about lengthy or short paragraphs depending on genre. I like to see a good amount of white space per page, especially if I’m reading a light romance.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Cindy R. Wilson » We’re probably the same type of readers–10-12 works well for me. But when I had a lot of little children, three or four pages might have been better! 🙂

  11. I started my non-fiction book with the intention of keep chapters short, but they have blown out some what. This is a great guide, thank you. I shall now take a look at breaking the content up some more. My 12 Chapters need to be 24.

    Thanks again, Sally

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Sally Napthali » Again, no hard and fast rule–it depends on what you’re talking about, how many examples you need to provide and so forth. You don’t want to break up a chapter that is flowing well, just because of its length. OTOH, try to keep your chapters of a similar length. It really is easier on the reader.

  12. I went at my WIP in early summer with a knife and cut well over 16,000 words. I was amazed how well things tightened up. I worked so hard, I was disappointed when the bathroom scale didn’t show my efforts.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Isn’t that the truth? You feel like you’ve made a huge sacrifice and disciplined yourself and it’s just the little word counter who even notices . . . 🙂

  13. Peter DeHaan says:

    This is great information and most helpful.

    (In my nonfiction WIP I open each chapter with dialogue. Do I get bonus points?)

  14. Kat Hinkson says:

    Great article. I was told at one of my first conferences to watch the numbers as well as white space on a page. The editor’s comment was that readers are busy and solid print pages may turn away a reader. You just emphasized what the editor said.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Kat Hinkson » Isn’t that true? I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds a solid page of words a bit daunting to read! 🙂

  15. Jenny Tavernier says:

    Someone finally screwed my lightbulb all the way in!
    Being a returning writer after several years, and having been writing in basically one genre for quite a while, I am still a bit of an isolationist while re-honing and reacquainting myself with today’s big picture. So much to relearn about! These were just the kind of stats I needed, all in one place. (Like a kick in the head!) Suddenly my dark little one-track cramped cubby turned into a spacious ballroom, lined with doors of every shape and size. I had forgotten that I have easily accessible and fabulous neighbors! Thanks for turning on the chandelier!

  16. Juan Gonzalez, Jr. says:

    This was such a great read! As you can tell, I really enjoyed reading this article. Since I started writing my novel, I have really taken into consideration the view of my future readers. Anything I write is written with my placing myself as the reader itself. A book that is easy on the eyes will have more appeal for the general audience. Even in books, one must make sure everything is placed in a strategic manner.

  17. elizabeth says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Michelle. Do you have any number guidelines for narrative nonfiction (a biography)? What would you say the word/chapter length should be for a biography? Also, should manuscripts/proposal chapters be double-spaced? What do you recommend? Thanks for the helpful advice!