This is truly the iconic question writers ask before finishing their first draft. Actually, it’s usually phrased, “How many pages should my novel be?”
I’ll answer this question for you, whether you plan to self publish or go the traditional route.
The Traditional Publishing Model
Okay, so here’s the short and long of it. If you ever want to have your novel considered by a major publishing house, there are a couple of rules that you need to follow.
One of them is word count. If you want your future novel on a bestseller list, you have to play by the rules, unless you want to try the lottery of best-selling a self-pub book, but that’s a story for another time.
So what word count do you need?
Short Answer: 70,000 – 90,000 words is a good target for a first novel.
There are publishers out there who print everything from short story series to 800 page tomes, but generally speaking 70-90,000 is your average. Historical and science fiction genres offer more leeway on the top end, up to 120,000 words, and romance tends to be on the shorter side, down to 55,000. Each publishing house has its own word target, but here are some general genre ideas for you.
Shorter Works of Fiction
- Flash Fiction: 100-1000 words, this is my definition
- Short Story: Whatever the lit mag says they need, generally below 6000 words, but the max count can vary drastically.
- Kids Books: ~1000 words per year of age, plus or minus.
- Middle Grade: 25,000 – 50,000 words
- Novel or Memoir: 80,000 plus, but not plus too much.
- Romance: 40,000–100,000 words. Depends on publisher
- Sci-Fi / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000 words
- Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
- Thriller / Horror / Mystery: 70,000 – 90,000 words
- YA: 50,000 – 80,000 words
Why it really doesn’t matter at the First Draft Stage
It’s a first draft, and you have bigger things to worry about than counting words or worrying about chapter lengths or even what to name your characters. Just write the book! Until you have it on paper, or saved in a file on your computer, it’s only a story in your head.
And here’s why.
Editing will change your word count drastically
Whether your draft was 40,000 words or 400,000, there’s going to be shitty writing, a lot of it. The major problem isn’t going to be commas and semicolons. It’s going to be your writing style and storytelling.
Some novice writers put down far too little. They breeze through the words at lightning speed, taking time only to accent the most important story elements. They tell instead of showing. If this is you and your word count is low, there are a lot of words to fill in those missing details without adding fluff.
I had the opposite problem. I wrote (and still write sometimes) long-winded sentences with flowery context. While this works for some of my writing, that first draft was bloody awful. This kind of writing results in a very long first draft, and first draft process for that matter. Kill as many of those extra words as you can.
If you don’t find something wrong with the story line of your first draft, then you aren’t looking hard enough.
They keynote for this topic is that stories can and do change. They change a lot.
So if you find yourself lacking words, assume that your first draft wasn’t deep enough. You can thread in a couple of side plots, add depth to important characters, and stick a couple of bonuses in there for especially attentive readers to pick up on.
If you have too many words, your plot might be really complex, but this is generally not the case. Too many words typically indicates wasting time describing stuff that the reader doesn’t care about, or at the very least is not essential to the story.
In that case, find every section that can be eliminated and kill it. Delete paragraphs, pages, even whole chapters. Ever read a book where the author droned on about something that had no bearing on the rest of the story? Look for that and fix it.
Don’t worry about word count if it’s a first draft, just finish the damn book.
If you come in under or over, especially if this is your first novel, check for some of the bigger fundamentals that you might need to brush up on. Make stories denser to add depth and complexity, remove telly writing, and get rid of anything non-essential.
At that point, you’ll probably find yourself pretty close to the target count when you finish the second or third draft. Once you are in the ballpark, just go with it. We’ll let the editors and literary agents help you with the rest. The most important thing is making the story as good as it can be, and putting it in a word count range that an agent won’t be turned off by.