Chapter length, story length, and more: the ultimate guide to how long you should be writing
How many words!?
This is a question I’ve heard repeated over and over again in every writing forum I’ve ever visited. Writers just want to know how long their chapters and their books in general should be.
The problem is, there’s not a solid answer. “How many words!?” Most the time I find myself saying, “However many you want.”
That said, there are some guidelines, though they’re very flexible, especially for the indie author (who is free to do just about whatever they want).
Still, today we’ll be talking about industry standards for length (by the word) within the traditional publishing world as well as in general!
We don’t want to consider how many pages here. If you want to talk pages, well, I want to talk page sizes first—and then fonts and font sizes and indents and … you get the idea. We’re focusing on words in this post.
In general, chapter length is actually very flexible. There aren’t even available industry guidelines available—at least nothing solid. It really depends on your book.
Most times, it’s not even required to put chapters in! It’s an author choice.
However, I will tell you that most authors I know, including myself, aim for between 1,500-3,000 words per chapter. I personally try to keep them all between 2,000 and 3,000 but lately it’s been like 3,000-5,000 because my characters are not cooperating.
Children’s fiction authors or authors of fast-paced books may shorten their chapters, and with longer books, it makes sense to have longer chapters oftentimes.
Honestly, though, this is a choice you have to make for yourself. What do you feel comfortable with? About how long do you estimate the chapters of the books you read are?
In the end, finding a good stopping place and going with that is better than obsessing over chapter length when you could be working on your next book!
What makes a novella (and a short story and so on)?
There is again some flexibility, but here are some general guidelines.
Flash fiction: 1-1,000 words
Short story: 1,000-8,000 words
Novelette: 8,000-15,000 words
Novella: 15,000-40,000 words
Note that though 40,000+ technically count as novels, most novels are in the range of 60,000-100,000. Also, the difference between a novella and a novelette is a blurred line; many people will call anything 10,000-40,000 a novella!
By the genre: traditional standards
In the traditional publishing world, genre-length standards are totally a thing. Here’s some general lengths!
Science fiction and fantasy:
There is some flexibility with any genre, but this is the category that tends on the long side. However, they don’t usually exceed 150,000 words.
90,000-120,000 is a good guideline for science fiction and fantasy. Audiences in this genre generally are more comfortable with epics, wanting to spend more time in the
50,000-100,000. I know, I know—that’s a big difference! But this includes a lot of subgenres, after all: contemporary, historical, paranormal, fantasy.
When writing a romance, always think about your subgenres. Historical fans may be all right with slightly longer novels than contemporary fans—but if you’re writing less “epic” historical romance, you may want to go on the shorter side.
Anywhere from 80,000-100,000 is acceptable for this genre, though it can be a little bit more. After all, you’re doing the same thing with that science fiction and fantasy authors are doing—you’re creating a new universe for your contemporary readers!
Note that some subgenres can be shorter. Christian fiction and romance (and combinations of the two) tend to be on the shorter side.
These are all page-turners, and they require a fast pace, so they tend to be slightly shorter, generally in the range of 70,000-90,000 words.
Some subgenres, however, can be shorter—it’s not uncommon for cozy mystery, for instance, to be more in the range of 50,000-60,000, for instance.
Young Adult (YA) fiction:
YA has some variance, especially due to subgenres, but it’s a little shorter than most adult fiction—usually 50,000-80,000 words. A fantasy YA title would be a bit longer, but
Like YA, there’s a lot of variance to be had here. Children’s picture books can vary a lot! Just grab a couple off your shelf (assuming you have picture books!), and you’ll see a lot of variance depending on the specific age they’re targeting.
Chapter books for children vary, too. For ages 8-10, they’re in the range of 1,000 to 10,000 words, though it’s feasible for it to be a bit longer. For ages 8-12, this will go up to 10,000-30,000. If you’re aiming for 10-14, then 25,000+ is common and can be as long as 50,000. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis measures 38,421 words.
As I said before, these are more guidelines than rules.
If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, you’ll want to follow these guidelines somewhat closely, or at least take a stroll through the general ballpark.
However, indie authors can make or break these rules. Just keep in mind that if you write a 100,000 word long children’s fiction novel, you won’t have a lot of kids getting through it!
I’d say common sense and reader reactions are the biggest guidelines for an indie author.
For instance, if most of your readers are mentioning that they’d hoped the book would be a bit longer—not as in they wanted the story to go on but as in it felt rushed or like they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth— that might be a sign you need to write longer.
But … if a lot of readers are quitting halfway through or complaining about it seeming to drag, that could be a sign that you’re writing on the long side!
How long do your stories tend to be?
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Man, I wish I’d had this post when I first started out writing. I can’t tell you how many times I googled these questions! XD
I try to stay between 2,500 and 5,000 words (3,500 is the sweet spot), and for a time there, I thought my novels would all be a consistent 75k to 90k…then I finished Bound and Determined at 208k, so. *shrugs* Proof you can break the rules (or guidelines) and no one will complain (at least, they haven’t yet). XD
Somehow I didn’t reply to this comment … not sure how, except of course, the deepest negligence. 😛 Anyways, here I am.
Yeah, there are no hard and fast rules, especially for indies. I mean, just look at how long (for me) Like a Ship on the Sea has gotten. *winces* I’m going to die paying for editors, aren’t I … ah well.