Writing by the Numbers or Do Word Counts Count?

Photo of a Civil War doctor's notes in a journal

Photo of a Civil War doctor’s notes in a journal on display in the Kenosha Civil War Museum.

Word count – something you hear a lot about once you delve into writing.  There’s NaNoWriMo where the goal is 50,000 in a month no matter what.  Books on wriitng talk about daily goals in word count.  Publishers call for pieces by word count.  Publishers often state pay by the word.  When writers talk about how their writing day went it’s in word count.  So yeah, in writing, word count counts.

As a newbie I struggled with this concept.  On one hand it’s not hard for me to churn out 3,000 words a day.  Then on the other hand I tend to ramble, those aren’t sellable words they’d be edited down to say 1,200 or so.  Part of my growth as a writer was coming to terms with word counts and using them productively.  The hardest writing isn’t getting big numbers but saying what you want to say in small numbers.  Writing short is the hardest.  Mike learned that this weekend when a 500 word paper took him 16 hours to write, where as 3,000 word paper on the topic would have been easier.

Why Count?  Words Per Page

First let’s look at why word count is the industry standard of measurement.  Printing isn’t cheap.  The expense of making a paper book is a major investment by the publisher.  Depending on font size, layout design, and type of book the word count varies from 250 per page for large print books to 1,000 per page for pure reference books.  Novels fall about 350 – 400 words per page. Sure this is going to change given ebooks. But then again just how that will be is still up in the air, the market is still hashing that one out. Right now if you want sale success like Harry Potter, Twilight, and 50 Shades  (and honestly what writer doesn’t?) printed paper books are a driver in sales and a marketing tool. Word count is a measure of printing expenses that the publisher is ask to bear up front.

What’s a short story word count?  What’s a novel?  

The next question that arises is how many words in a novel?  The typical answer is 75,000.  That’s a good median number across genres.  The truth is NaNoWriMo is short even for the lower end of the genre scale.  I’ve read many blogs by very successful agents and editors all agree the kiss of death is to  fall outside the industry accepted range for your genre.  Every type of book has what’s expected in word count driven by printing concerns and audience preference for length (we’ll get back to this idea) be it a children’s book, young adult, fiction or non-fiction there are industry ranges.

I mostly deal in fiction.  I’ve sold short stories  and I want to sell novels.  The short stories I’ve sold have fallen 3,000 – 5,000 words, the industry guidelines for shorts ranges from 1,000 – 7,000.  So my experience has fallen right in the middle of that. Steampunk gets a large word count than say noir mystery because of the genre tropes.  This concept carries over to novels too.  Depending on the genre word counts for novels vary widely.  On the low end are cozy mysteries and category romances these can be as low as 55,000 but no higher than 80,000.  The high end is high fantasy and literary running 80,000 – 200,000.  I tend to write mystery, thriller, or crime type of stories those fall again in the middle 75,000 – 90,000.

These aren’t set in concrete and are hazy at the ends so do some research reading several agent and editor blogs to get an idea of your specific market.  Also if you are writing to a contract, hold to the requirements do NOT exceed or fall short.  Second if you are writing or submitting to a call – meet their guidelines it’s one of the first ways they thin their pile is tossing out the too short and the too long without reading them.

What drives these counts for different genres?

Also consider your sales record as a writer when setting out your word count goals.  Let’s face it, proven best selling authors get carte blanche almost when it comes to word length.  Just look at Stephen King’s The Stand or the advancing size of J K Rowling’s Potter novels to see it in action.  If either of them hadn’t had millions if not billions of sold books under their belts and proven best sellers on release day those books would have been much smaller.  For first time writers writing within the call and guidelines is the best, don’t push either end of your chosen genre’s limits.

Another word about these guidelines for novels, they are always in flux.  Reader preferences as well as printing expense drive them.  What a modern reader generally reads for is action and experiences.  Where as the Victorian reader read for description.  Think about that for a minute.  If we want to know what it is like in India we hop on the internet and see pictures, documentaries, articles, chat with people in India and maybe even book a trip there.  It’s easy for us to see it virtually or in real life.  Not so much so in Victorian times, they couldn’t do that.  Photographs were new and expensive. Travel was expensive, arduous, and rarely for great distances. Printing was affordable so they read to ‘see’ what new places were like.  Today we can easily see a place now a reader reads to experience things he can’t.  It might be a thriller or might be another life in an exotic place.

These preferences drive word counts. steampunk, fantasy, science fiction readers read more for the life in an exotic place reasons these take more descriptive scenes.  Description takes more words than action.  So these get higher end word limits.  This even showed true going to my short story experience.  On the other hand – mystery, police procedural,  thrillers all take place in a world we know but the reader is there for the action.  So those have lower limits, the writer doesn’t have to establish the world- it’s already there and the reader knows it.

Do chapters have word count guidelines?

We’ve talked about page word counts.  We’ve talked about total story word counts.  What about chapters?  If you thought the other was kind of fuzzy, chapters are totally blurry.  There are lots of avenues of thought on this.  Some will say let the chapter breaks fall naturally where they may as long as you are in the guidelines total limits good!  Others will say 2,500 to 3,500 words per chapter for action based stories and 3,500 to 7,000 for more world building stories. Others will favor ending the chapter on a hook or cliff to pull the reader forward into the story.

I listened to all the pros and cons of the stances on chapter lengths.  I then went to the library and looked over chapter sizes in best sellers in the genre I aspired to write. I also looked at how each chapter ended.  Was it with a hook, a cliff, or end of scene or mixture? I also thought about myself as a reader. What chapter types did I like to read in this genre?  I realized I often say to myself – I’ll read to the end of the chapter then I flip to see how many pages that is.  If it’s a lot of pages I don’t and stick my bookmark in it then go off to the next thing.  If there’s just a few I’ll read on.  Same about the ending.  If it’s end of scene I’ll put the book down.  If it’s a hook or cliff I’ll look at the next chapter’s length and if it’s not too long I’ll keep reading.

Finally I talked to authors.  Not newbies like me but experienced ones.  Ones that have had best sellers. Ones that have multiple novels published.  Ones that have had multiple books published not only in various genres but in both fiction and non-fiction.  I came away with several things.  The first important one was stressed over and over – stay within the overall guidelines.  Second it’s easier when planning and writing to set word count expectations for chapters.  Thirdly I had several in my genre say that their writing went faster when they accepted the idea that chapters end with a hook or cliff as well as the 2,500 to 3,500 word count guideline. Also a few noted that with planning and those guidelines their amount of proofing/rewriting time dropped drastically.  So  given what I saw published, what I like as a reader, what experienced well published authors were telling me – I settled on those as my guidelines.  Ya know what?  That USA Today best seller knew what she was talking about! It is easier to write and plan with those in place.

Word counts count if you decide they do.

In the end it comes down to why you write in the first place.  Are you writing to sell?  If so then yes they count.  They determine if an agent or publisher looks at your manuscript.  They determine your pay.  They effect the style and structure of your story.  They are driven by the market both aspects economic and customer preference.  IF your are writing to sell then do your research know what is expected and meet those expectations.

IF you are writing for enjoyment – yours and your friends/family.  Then no, they don’t count.  You don’t have to worry about how many words you have any where. If you fall here don’t worry just tell your complete story well and enjoy.

Until Next time!

4 thoughts on “Writing by the Numbers or Do Word Counts Count?

  1. As a bookbinder, your picture of the book introducing this post drew me in like caffeine addict to a coffee shop roasting their own beans.
    I just read a book with really long chapters and it was distracting from the story as there were natural breaks in the action but the chapter still continued. I probably won’t go back to her writing again. I’ve also had books with short chapters and although it made me feel as if I was speed reading, there was still a disconnect from the storyline.

    • I think extremes at either end (too long or too short) don’t work for chapters. As I said it’s such a grey area and genre dependent. I’ve read books that mix the extremes to great success but like grammar, poetry, or anything else it takes a master of the rules to break them successfully.

      Yes that book was a treasure. Don’t worry I didn’t use a flash to make the photo, that’s why it has the odd hue to it the preservation lighting and gas in the storage display. It would be a joy to read it and inspect how it’s made but that’s not for mere museum patrons.

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I’m REALLY a newbie as compared to you, and my writing classes covered some of this material, but yours is my preferable reference! This post was really complete and answered my questions (you may remember, I always ask a lot of questions – I’m a writer, what can I say?!). Can’t wait for your next post! Debb

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