If you’re writing a novel, there are many reasons why you should care about your word count. The traditional publishing industry, as well as readers, expects novels in certain genres to be a certain length (No, it’s not 50,000, unlike what a certain November writing event would have you believe). Adhering to these word count expectations will not only increase your chances of traditionally publishing a debut novel, but it will also will ensure that you’re following genre expectations for pacing.
Here’s what you need to know.
How many words are in a novel?
The average novel is somewhere between 60,000—120,000 words in length, depending on genre. Some genres, like romance, are in the lower end of this range; literary fiction novels tend to be longer. Books shorter than 60,000 words are normally considered novellas, though word counts can be lower for middle grade and children’s fiction.
We’ll look at some of the most popular fiction genres and their standard word count ranges below—there are no hard and fast rules.
How many words are in a romance novel?
Classic genre romance novels are often on the shorter side, with an average length of 70,000—80,000 words, but the occasional romance book can climb upward to the 90,000-words range.
Here are some popular romance novels and their approximate word counts.
Business or Pleasure by Rachel Lynn Solomon—83,000 words
How to Fail at Flirting by Denise Williams—81,000 words
Love in the Time of Serial Killers by Alicia Thompson—80,000 words
How many words are in a women’s fiction novel?
Women’s fiction novels are books aimed at a female readership, but the plot doesn’t solely revolve around romance. The term is being aged out a bit, as women’s fiction really can encompass a range of cross-sectioned genres (including literary fiction, historical, contemporary, etc.), but you’ll find that many publishing professionals still use it.
These novels are a little bit longer than a romance novel, typically around 80,000 to 100,000 words.
Again, here are a few examples:
The Maid by Nita Prose—87,856 words
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub—89,000 words
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman—92,000 words
How many words are in a thriller or mystery novel?
Thrillers and mysteries can go a bit longer, but their fast pacing makes them feel tight and compact. Most thriller novels fall between 80,000 and 95,000 words.
Here are a few examples:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins—95,000 words
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware—97,000 words
The Guest List by Lucy Foley—92,000 words
How many words are in a historical novel?
Historical fiction is generally considered to be on the longer side, at least compared to a contemporary literary fiction novel. Because they tend to be epic in scope, historical novels start at around 85,000 words and go up to 110,000—120,000 words, or sometimes even more.
The Blind Light by Stuart Evers—128,000 words
Conjure Women by Afia Atakora—124,000 words
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell—88,000 words
How many words are in a fantasy or science fiction novel?
Much like historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels are also on the longer side due to the amount of worldbuilding that often has to occur. Readers familiar with these genres go into a book willing to give the story a little more time and space.
Most science fiction and fantasy novels fall within a range of 90,000—120,000 words.
Here are some examples of word count for fantasy and science fiction novels:
One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig—94,000 words
The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean—92,000 words
Uprooted by Naomi Novik—114,000 words
How many words are in a horror novel?
Horror is a weird little genre in that it blends the tension of a thriller with the worldbuilding of fantasy and sci-fi. Because of this, the average word count really varies. You could be writing a shorter horror novel around 70,000 words, but you can also have longer horror novels that go up to 100,000 words or more.
Here are some word counts from contemporary horror novels:
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix—101,000 words
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward—96,000 words
The Hacienda by Isabel Canas—101,000 words
How many words are in a young adult novel?
Unlike adult fiction, young adult novels are on the shorter side and have fewer words per page. While these books can vary, they tend to be around 10—15% shorter than adult reads in a given genre. This is because YA novels are just generally more fast-paced than adult novels, with less intensive worldbuilding.
Average word counts in some young adult books include:
Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan—84,000 words
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black—91,000 words
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo—88,000 words
How many words are in a middle grade novel?
A middle grade novel is around 30,000 to 55,000 words. Middle grade novels are for those readers just starting to graduate out of easy reading books, but they’re not quite into the young adult section of the bookstore just yet.
Here are a few examples of middle grade books and their word counts:
Holes by Louis Sachar—46,000 words
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen—41,000 words
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare—32,000 words
Why should you care about novel word count guidelines?
Does word count matter? Yes. Absolutely.
No matter your publishing goals, genre, or how good every word is, if you want to attract readers and keep them reading, you need to care about how many pages and how many words you’re using in your book.
Here are some of the reasons why getting to an ideal word count is worth it.
1. Traditional publishing expects a certain range
If you pursue traditional publishing, your journey will start with querying and finding a literary agent to represent your work to publishers. Those literary agents will expect your book to fall within its genre’s word count parameters. Presenting a book that meets expectations will show that you respect and understand the industry.
Once you have a literary agent, an editor at a publishing house (the person who will ultimately decide if your book is published) will expect the same. The general rule is that publishing houses don’t purchase novels that don’t meet a maximum or minimum length. So, if you want to get a book deal as a debut author, keep your page length and your book’s total words in mind.
Why does the publishing industry demand these rigorous guidelines for word count?
For one, it’s about money. The higher the page count in a book, the more work is required to get it out to stores. The more pages in a book, the more it costs to print.
For two, readers have expectations, too, which brings us to…
2. Readers want books of a certain length
Your target audience will have certain expectations for how long the ideal book should be. Because of this, you should care about your book’s word count even if you’re self publishing.
Think about it.
When you look at books in the bookstore, do you notice trends in book length and size, depending on what section of the store you’re in? Probably.
If you go to the thriller or crime fiction section, the books are on the shorter side, with a lower word count. The same thing is true if you’re in the romance section. However, if you’re in the fantasy section, suddenly the books start to get a bit bigger.
Readers who constantly pick up the next great romance from their favorite author expect all romance books to be about the same size. If they’ve been reading books that are 200—300 pages for years, they’re going to be a little hesitant to suddenly pick up a massive novel that’s 500 pages-plus.
On the flip side, readers who always go for the big books may think that a shorter book doesn’t pack enough weight to really catch their interest. They want to really get lost in a fictional world for hours or days, and a novella just isn’t going to cut it.
So, whether you go traditional publishing or indie publishing or any other path to readership, keep readers’ preferences in mind to build the biggest readership base possible. More readers will flock to your words if you give them what they want.
3. Incorrect length could be a sign of a pacing problem
Unfortunately, if your book’s word count doesn’t match up with genre standards and you’re failing to get close to the appropriate word count, it could be a sign of a pacing problem. Perhaps you’ve included too many details or repetitive scenes. Perhaps you’ve packed way too much plot into a singular book. Or, maybe you haven’t fleshed out your plot quite enough.
Whatever the case may be, if your novel is wildly off base in terms of standard word count for your genre, it’s time to take a look at potential pacing issues.
Word count standards do tend to matter more for a debut novel or newer authors than they do for more well-known authors. While many, many authors have totally thrown out the rule book when it comes to novel length, these outlier authors often are already established. This isn’t their first rodeo (or first novel). Editors and readers will give them leeway, or they simply got lucky.
What to do if your novel is too long
So, you’ve taken a look at all the various standard word counts for your genre and age group and you’ve determined that your first draft is just too long. There are too many words. What can you do?
There are a few things:
1. Examine every scene
Every scene in your novel should serve a purpose. If it’s not serving a purpose, cut it.
This will be difficult. Your brain will justify every scene at first. But be ruthless!
Could you combine and condense two scenes into one? Do you have scenes that both serve the same purpose (such as making your main character realize what a jerk their boyfriend is so they feel compelled to leave him)? Then one of these scenes is likely redundant.
Do you have scenes where you’re just showing your characters getting from one place to another? Or living their daily lives in a way that’s going to be more or less boring for the reader?
Cut it all.
2. Look for filler words
Sometimes, longer novels just have too much filler. If you’re struggling to remove entire scenes, consider how you could cut an easy few thousand words by removing purple prose or words we’re all guilty of using every once in a while, but that could be cut for your novel length’s sake.
For example, if your narrator is constantly using phrases like “I wondered” or “I thought,” remove them. Your narrator doesn’t need to say that they’re wondering something. They can just wonder it! “I wondered if he loved me” becomes “Did he love me?” You just turned six words into four.
3. Don’t get bogged down in world-building
This is especially an issue in the fantasy genre. Writers need to know about the intricate details of their fictional worlds—but does the reader?
You don’t need to spend pages explaining your fantasy world’s legal system if it never even comes up in your novel later. Your book probably doesn’t need to examine all its fantastical weather elements, either.
You don’t need to wax poetic about the history of arsenic just for your main character to use it to poison one bad guy. We don’t need a thorough explanation of the different types of weapons your hero has at their disposal if they only use one.
Give your reader the need-to-know details and nothing more.
What to do if you novel is too short
On the flip side, your novel could be far too short. In this case, it’s because something is missing.
1. Get to know your characters better
If your reader never has the chance to get to know your characters, they’re not going to care about them. If you’re struggling with a short word count, consider if you can use some more words to really get deep into the mind and life of your main character.
Character development is key to an engaging story and some shorter novels often just don’t provide enough development.
2. Make sure you have enough conflict
A central conflict makes a plot, but you shouldn’t only have external conflict in your novel.
In addition to fighting the bad guys or overcoming evil, your characters should also face internal conflict—something they’re dealing with mentally or emotionally, inner demons they have to overcome.
If your novel isn’t long enough, you may have missed something in your story arc by simply not giving your character enough problems. (In fact, you could just be making your character’s journey too easy. Torture them a little bit. Make them fail before they get what they want.)
3. Get a second opinion
The best way to find out what’s missing from a novel? Ask the most valuable writing tool there is: a reader.
If you can get a critique partner or beta reader to give your novel a look (something you should be doing as part of your normal writing routine anyway), they can often tell you quickly and easily what they wished there was more of, or what left them feeling unsatisfied.
Give your readers (and publishers) what they want
Genres and their standards, including book word count, exist for a reason. Readers like what they like, and they want to know that a book will give them the reading experience they’re after. So, to grow a readership that loves your work, give those readers what they want—a book that’s just the right size.