Average novel word count. (And when is YOUR novel too long?)

This is just volume 1 …

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
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
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.)

The first volume in my 280,000 word Lords of Sauron trilogy

Other fiction
Most fiction does’t fit in tidy boxes. If yours doesn’t, then treat 75,000 to 120,000 as an average wordcount.

Long fiction
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.

Popular non-fiction
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.

Niche non-fiction
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.

Children’s fiction
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.

If you need to cut more than that, there’s probably an issue with your plot, in which case you’ll find useful help here and here.

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.

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  • Christopher Conner

    I am a writer in the U.S. Do the word-count suggestions in “Average Novel Wordcount (and when is your novel too long?)” by Harry Bingham also apply to the U.S. market?

  • This article was tremendously helpful. I am writing a fiction coming of age story that is not YA, and have reached 100,000 words. I know I will need to cut a lot.

  • Harry

    Yes – these length guidelines are pretty much universal.

  • Molly Ward

    What is your distinction between women’s fiction and other fiction?

  • Harry

    There isn’t a strict one – just use your judgement.

  • Christopher Conner

    This is a follow-up to from my May 10, 2016 comment. I want to believe that 150,000 words is acceptable for a novel with a story that justifies that length, but all websites of literary agent in the US seem to disagree. My novel is a medical thriller which describes a new world of human medical research programs designed by the US government to eliminate epidemics of our time and chronic disabling diseases. If unchecked, the cost of these conditions would result socioeconomic crisis and collapse of the US health care system. So the government risks using unconventional research methods, as no other way exists.
    The novel focuses on one such program for Alzheimer’s disease, which has found a cure by direct research on young subjects. The novel is 150,000 words, required to describe this new world of human research and how a cure was found, based on medical fact. Will the guidelines you suggest hold for this book or will it face sudden death with a year of rejections based on length >120K when submitted. Thank you for any assistance! Chris Conner, Pharm.D.

  • Harry

    There’s no essential problem with a 150K word thriller. I write crime thrillers and the one before last was 135K, and no problem with that.

    I do have two worries in what you say, though. (1) you say the word count is “required to describe this new world of human research and how a cure was found, based on medical fact”. That COULD be true, but it may also be that your book is exposition-heavy, because you are over-eager to communicate (true and interesting) things about current research to your readers. And the truth is thrillers can’t take much exposition of that sort. Readers just don’t want it.

    Also (2) the majority of longer novels that we see simply haven’t been tightly enough written. Indeed, I’d be prepared to bet you $5 that you could take 20,000 words out of the novel without even really eliminaating content. You probably want to do at least 1-2 edits concentrating ONLY on length before submitting the work. (see this link for more help on all that: http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/blog/how-to-edit-a-novel/ )

    But as I say, I haven’t read your novel, so points 1 & 2 are speculative only, based on the things we usually see. The word count alone would not kill your MS. Best of luck!

  • Christopher Conner

    An immense thank you for your comments and the time you took to make them. I’ve been wrestling with word count of this novel for years and the points you make seem to hit the nail right on the head. I will use them. Thanks so much again. Chris

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  • Rebecca

    I actually just finished writing and self-editing my first book. It’s a mystery mainly, but the word count is just over 38,000, and it is at about 257 pages. I was wondering if there is anything else that I need to do? Does it need to be lengthened or is it okay? I can see it as a young adult/high schooler book mainly, but adults could like it too (hopefully).

  • Harry

    If it’s YA, then 40K is probably fine. If the book is aimed at adults, then it’s a good 30,000 words too short.

  • Gotta agree with this, most things can be trimmed a LOT. Every book I’ve read, for starters. Watch out for places where the narrator is recapping. If your book is long, that’s probably the first thing an agent is going to look at (if they ask for a full MS). Then the normal word cutting techniques. Then scenes or chapters that are completely unnecessary and don’t advance the plot. 150k is a wonderful thing, because you can tighten the story as much as you want without dropping below the traditional thresholds. If you’ve already done everything you can to it, cool. But you might want to hand it off to a beta reader and ask their opinion specifically on things that can be cut. Might get an eye-opening response.

  • James Mac

    What about the Graduate? When Breath becomes air? Big Sur? Down and out in Paris and London? They can’t even stretch 30,000 words yet they are classics. Books going on and on… what is the true model?

  • Harry

    Well, very short books are still OK if (a) they’re superb and (b) aimed a literary market. But otherwise, in the market of today, what I say above is true. I’m not saying it ought to be true, or that great books don’t get missed as a result, but . . .

  • marc

    I’m writing a short(ish) book of my memories about visiting Scotland many years ago. Some of it is very accurate, but in other sections, I used literary license, i.e. imagination, to move the story along . Should I consider this a fiction or non-fiction..and your thoughts on the word count of such a story? Thanks in advance for your help.

  • Harry

    Probably non-fic based on what you say . . . but I’m not sure this work sounds broadly marketable. Sorry! The good news? If you self-publish, then any length is fine!

  • Aliastair

    I am writing a series of 3 historic novels, do they all need to be finished before approaching a publisher or is it possible to send the first completed one while continuing to work on the second so that I can get some idea on the feasibility of the project? Thanks

  • Harry

    It’s fine to have only finished the first. But you need to approach an agent, not a publisher. See our material on getting literary agents (in advice tab above) and do use AgentHunter.co.uk as your agent hunting service.

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