I’m like you.
When I wrote my first novel – a very long one, as it happens – I started to worry that I was way off the mark. I was scared that agents would reject my book simply because I had got the length wrong.
So I went to a bookstore, gathered some (big, hefty) novels that were in a genre similar to mine, and sat there on the shop floor and counted words. It turned out that, yes, I was at the very long end of things, but not impossibly long. I sold that book for a good six-figure sum, and have never looked back since.
How many words in a novel?
But it’s OK. You don’t need to run down to your nearest big store. This guide will tell you quickly the average word counts for every category of novel, plus the high/low limits you really ought to stay inside.
How long is an adult novel?
If you’ve written a novel for adults, then the following guidelines are pretty sound:
Women’s fiction usually runs from about 75,000 words up to about 120,000. Anything within those limits is definitely fine. A 70,000 word book might be OK, but don’t go shorter than that. If you’re over 120,000 words and you’re writing a saga, that’s fine. If you’re writing an ordinary romance, you probably need to do a fair bit of cutting.
Crime & thrillers
Crime novels usually run a bit longer than women’s fiction, so although 75,000 words is fine as a lower limit, anything up to 130,000 words is pretty standard. Don’t go below 75,000 though.
Fantasy novels can be loooong – up to 180,000 or even 200+. But the novel must be really good and it must fully justify its word count. In other words, you have to be scrupulous about editing every sentence for length. (For advice on that, go here.)
Most fiction does’t fit in tidy boxes. If yours doesn’t, then treat 75,000 to 120,000 as an average wordcount.
And, OK, sometimes fiction is long. If your story justifies the length, you needn’t worry if you get up to 150,000 words, or even 180,000. But that is on the very long side. (A 180,000 word novel prints out at about 650 paperback pages.) You can only get away with novels of that scale if the story has a real epic quality to it and if the storytelling is remorselessly excellent.
Oh, and don’t trust any source on the internet which tells you that such stories are unsaleably long. They’re just not. Apart from anything else, my own first novel was 190,000 words long and it sold to HarperCollins for a lot of money. The per novel word count of my Fiona Griffiths series stands at about 125,000 words, and several of the books go over 130,000 words.
How long is a literary novel?
If you’re writing for a more literary audience, then the rules above apply as regards upper limits. (In other words, anything up to 120,000 words – no problem. Up to 150,000 – OK, but check you’re not waffling. Up to 180,000 – Still OK, but you really, really need to justify that word count.)
But the lower limits are quite a lot lower. A good, short literary novel might be 60,000 words. A very good, very short one might be as little as 45 or 50,000. But the shorter it gets, the better it needs to be. If you find that your novella is as little as 30,000 words, you’re really best off packaging it up with two more linked novellas and presenting a 90,000 word package to agents and publishers.
How long is a non-fiction book?
Memoir and biography
Most memoirs need to be in the 70 to 100,000 word range, certainly if this is your misery memoir, or something along those lines. If you’re a major league celebrity, then you can blow right through that 100,000 word count and just keep going.
For the kind of book that normally sits on the front tables at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, you’ll find that 70 to 120,000 words is about typical. If the topic really justifies length (and especially if your credentials are highly impressive) you can go longer – but check that you remain interesting even at length.
For anything really niche – How to Groom Your Poodle, How to Get Started in Internet Fraud, that kind of thing – there are no real limits. Just write a good book on the topic and let length look after itself.
How long is a children’s novel?
Young Adult fiction
YA fiction usually needs to be in the 50 to 70,000 word range. You can go up to 100,000 if your stuff is really good, but no longer than that please, no matter what.
Sorry, but kids’ fiction is so varied in terms of length, type, illustration and so forth that it’s really hard to give accurate rules. Your best bet is to go to a good children’s bookstore and look at books that are similar to your own in terms of target audience. Then count the words on a typical page. Multiply up by the number of pages and get to a rough word count. Do that with several books that seem to be similar to yours and you have a pretty fair idea of where the market stands. Needless to say, the younger the child, the shorter the word count.
Is your idea any good?
More important than getting the word count right is making sure that your idea is strong enough in the first place!
We’ve got a great series of free videos that look at how to check your ideas, how to make them stronger, and how to write like a real professional. The videos are totally free and you can go and get your videos here.
Need to edit your novel?
If your book is too long and you need to cut it, our advice on how to cut effectively can be found here. It’s often possible to take a good 30,000 words out of a book without really affecting the content, just by being rigorous about what words, sentences, paras and scenes really, truly earn their place.
And if you still need help, then do the job properly! Either come to us for a full-on editorial critique, which will blow your mind in terms of the insights it will offer. Or sign up to our self-editing course, which is better than sliced bread stuffed full of hot sausages and mustard.