Word count is the most straightforward way of measuring your novel’s length. Below, I discuss what your word count means, why its important, and what to do when your novel isn’t the length that you want it to be.

Ideally, your word count is going to be somewhere between 80-100k words, with a bit more variation for genre. Since there are already a few great posts out there breaking down standard word counts (writer’s digest has an especially good one), I’m not going to lay out the exact details of word counts by genre here. I do, however, recommend checking them out.

Some common questions about word count:

Is my word count that important? Why does it matter?

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Hold on. Let me count.

That depends on who you are and what you want. If you’re a new writer looking to publish, especially if you’re shooting for traditional publishing, then yes. Many agents cite inappropriate word counts as a reason for rejecting a query. Coming from an unestablished author, an inappropriate word count could suggest a poor understanding of the genre or issues with the plot and pacing of the story. For ebooks and self-publishing, word counts are a bit more flexible, but it stands that the word count may suggest structural problems with the story.

But I thought 50k words was a novel. Why do I need twice that to publish?

50k is the absolute minimum for something to be considered a novel. It technically counts, but it also means that there’s a good chance that the story is going to be bare bones, or else very narrow in scope. In order to get the level of complexity and the pacing preferred by most traditional publishers, the book needs to be a bit longer. There are certainly great short novels out there. It’s just difficult to find a home for them in traditional publishing.

But my favorite book is 250k words long, and it’s a bestseller. Why can’t my first novel be 250k?

Established authors can get away with writing long books because they have sales figures and a reputation that suggests that those books will sell. They also have the writing chops that suggest that they can pull off a story of that length. Even if your 200k+ novel is perfect, it takes up twice as much shelf-space as a shorter book, which means it isn’t economical for bookstores to carry it unless they know that it can sell. The length can also be off-putting to readers. A long book is a considerable time investment, and a lot of readers aren’t willing to commit to that if they don’t know that the writer can make it worthwhile. If your book is long, readers need to choose between your book and the two or three others they could read in the same time. There are a lot of worthwhile books out there, so that’s a pretty tough sell.

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I”m not saying it’s the best book ever written, but it might be the best book ever written.

Some people do have long first novels that not only get published but also hit the bestseller list. It does happen. But generally, best practice is to assume that you’re not the exception unless a. you’ve received extensive, overwhelmingly positive feedback from trusted beta-readers who aren’t related to you and b. you’re prepared to back up your claim, advocate for yourself, and submit to a lot of agents.

Help! My book is the wrong length:

In Wednesday and Friday’s posts, I will address what to do if your book is too long or too short, respectively. Below is some advice for dealing with general plot issues.

Outline your work before you start, with the target word count in mind: Put simply, having an outline before you begin helps you evaluate whether enough stuff happens in your story to hit the word count goal. Once you have an outline, you have a better idea of the scope of the story, and you can figure out approximately how long each event will take. Even if you don’t strictly follow the outline, it gives you a way of telling whether or not you’re on track, and where you ought to be word count-wise at any given point in the story. It also makes it easier to figure out your pacing, since if you know how much space everything ought to take up you’re less likely to spend, say, 20k words winding up to the inciting incident.

…But don’t obsess over word count while writing: The most important part of writing is getting your draft written. Your story might not follow your outline. In fact, it may go completely off the rails. Let it. Even if it’s a hot mess, finish your draft. A hot mess can be edited, rewritten, and sculpted into a great novel. A blank page can’t.

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I’m just going to stick this under the bed for a while.

Put it away for a while: If you finish your story and realize it’s too long or too short, the word count is no longer a writing question. It’s a revision question. And like all revision questions, the first thing you need to do before answering it is to put the book aside for a while and work on something else. Give yourself some distance. This will allow you to look at your work with a fresh perspective and to recognize your own mistakes.

Writing like a boss: Why word counts?

We use word counts to describe writing because they’re a simple measurement that is consistent across platforms and formats. The only way to change the word count is by changing the story.Page length depends on formatting–line spacing, margins, font (Times New Roman, for the love of god). Meanwhile chapter length is completely arbitrary. Four chapters could be 2k, 20k, or 200k words. When you say your word count, other writers know what you’re talking about.

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