I’ve previously written about how long a chapter should be because I saw someone asking the question in a writing forum last year. When I saw someone asking how long a novel should be in the same writing forum recently, I thought it was an excellent follow-up. My answer to the question of chapter length was the same as my answer to the question of novel length is now: how long is a piece of string?
As a general rule, a novel should be only as long as is required to tell the story. That may be much shorter or much longer than any publishing house rule length, which can sometimes seem arbitrary. But it’s important to stay true to the story. Padding a novel to make it longer will not make it better. Cutting key scenes to make a novel shorter will not make it better. In fact, both padding and cutting for that reason will almost always make them worse.
But there are some things to consider and some general guidelines for particular types of books.
Also referred to as chapter books (because they tend to be the first books children read that are long enough for chapters), stories for children can be varying lengths that tend to depend on the very specific age group that the story is being written for. Obviously children read more slowly than adults and are still learning language, which –in addition to actually enjoying it – is hopefully why they are reading.
The numbers I’m about to put out there are very rough and obviously the capacity of each individual child will determine what they read, regardless of their age. But since when I was researching this blog post, I came across an author who had just finished her 200,000+ word novel for children, hopefully this will help us all to remain realistic.
The first chapter books for children will be anywhere up to 5,000 words and will mostly be read by children in the first half of primary school or in elementary school (depending on where in the world you are). For children in the second half of primary school or early middle school, between 10,000 and 12,000 words is generally considered a reasonable length for a book. And for children in the early years of high school or the later years of middle school, books should be starting to inch up around the 40,000 word mark.
The thing about children’s books is that children are always looking for books that will help them achieve the next level with their reading abilities. So, of course, they don’t go straight from reading a 5,000 word book to reading a 12,000 word book. They slowly graduate with novels in between – a 7,000 word book and then a 9,000 word book. And the topics and the words gradually get more mature, too. When you write a children’s book, you are helping to educate. It’s an awesome responsibility.
After this, children are generally old enough to move on to young adult novels.
Young Adult Novels
Young adult novels have undergone something of a revolution in the past decade as many of them have become what the industry refers to as “crossovers”. That is, books that fall into the young adult category but have been so widely read across so many age groups that they can also be considered mainstream. Twilight and The Hunger Games are perfect examples.
Again, as young adults transition from the 40,000 word books they were reading as older children into this category, it leaves some room for variation in the word count. But around the 80,000 word mark is a pretty good goal. A little less won’t have an editor casting aside your manuscript and neither will a little more.
The length of a Mills & Boon or category romance or shorter romance novel (however you prefer to refer to them but you know the sort of books I’m talking about) is generally between 50,000 and 70,000 words and most tend to be closer to 50,000. Mills & Boon are very specific about length depending on which type of Mills & Boon you are writing and because they are publishing to a very specific formula, that makes sense. They want a man and a woman and they want them to fall in love and get together without making the reader wait too long for satisfaction.
Longer romance novels will have more in common, length wise, with mainstream fiction novels. They are less formulaic in some respects and just as formulaic in others. But the experience of reading them when it comes to the investment of time will be more like a general novel. I remember being able to get through two or three shorter romance novels in a day when I was still reading them. I never read much longer romance fiction but two or three in a day would be virtually impossible.
Mainstream Fiction Novels
This is such a huge category that applying word limits could be dangerous. But here goes anyway. If a writer aims for somewhere between 80,000 words and 120,000 words, it should prevent a book being considered too short or too long.
The more successful writers become, the greater leeway they will be given to write to pretty much whatever length they want. However, if you’re not successful yet, it’s best not to overdo it or underdo it because if you’re lucky enough to attract the interest of a publisher, your editor is likely to simply send you away to make cuts you don’t want to make or add scenes you don’t think are necessary. If it all possible, allow an editor to make these sorts of decisions independent of the length of your book by making it approximately the “right” length.
Literature is one of those areas where the author can get away with pretty much whatever length he or she wishes to write. Because the category of “literature” is so broad and so much more focused on the quality of the writing, the length is less of an issue.
Having said that, those writing literature might want to have some consideration for the potential reader. Unless you’re writing the best book ever written (which although we hope we are, we generally aren’t), then most readers will get to a point where they wish the book were coming to an end. If you go significantly past that point, then it will contribute to a series of reviews complaining the book was too long.
On the other hand, I haven’t read too many reviews complaining about books that were too short. I’ve read plenty in which the readers wished the book was longer because they loved it so much, but that’s not really a complaint. It’s more of a compliment.
Here’s a great example of why length should be a consideration. About six months ago I purchased Eleanor Catton’s book, The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. I also purchased a number of other books at the same time. When I came to decide which to read first and which to leave until last, one of my main factors in making that decision was noticing that The Luminaries is 250,000 words long.
That’s not just a long book, it’s a commitment of a significant portion of my reading time. It might be a terrific book and winning a prestigious award tends to indicate that. But I still don’t know because I haven’t read it yet. Instead I’ve been reading a succession of books that require much less of a commitment from me.
I’ll get around to reading it eventually. But the simple fact of its enormous length has pushed it a long way down my to read list.
Remember that these are very rough guidelines and some publishers will have their own very specific requirements that have to be met. But if your book is good enough and they are interested, then they will work with you to get it to the length they require. It’s important not to get too fixated on length. After all, this isn’t university and we aren’t being policed by a grumpy old professor who won’t read past the upper word limit. Ultimately, it’s the story and not the length that will sell your book.