Monday, August 29, 2011

Writing Tip #3: How Does Your Word Count Compare?

"No one tells me how many words." — Her Royal Highness, Queen of All She Surveys

My middle-grade manuscript, Hipponapped, was almost 38,000 words when I finished it. The story includes delightful three-panel comics in every chapter—ostensibly drawn by one of the characters in the book, but really drawn by my college-age son, Eric. When my agent read it she asked if I could lower the age just a bit (to suit the content better), and try to cut it down, maybe to 20,000 words, to bring it more in line with heavily-illustrated titles like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I whittled hard, but I could only manage to get it to 30,000 words. I loved the result (cutting almost always makes manuscripts better), but any more trimming would have required me to omit plot, and possibly to chuck the verbose voice of the narrator, which I hoped not to have to do. At a certain point I had to stop obsessing over why my manuscript was still 10,000 words longer than Jeff Kinney's.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a book that's tightly plotted with polished prose is exactly as long as it needs to be. But writers are an insecure sort. We spend long hours alone in our homes, dressed like slobs, swimming in tea and popcorn, with the Internet at our disposal for obsessive-compulsive searching. Is it any wonder we want to ferret out how our manuscript compares with published books we admire or envy?

If you see yourself in that description, the tool to feed your inner crazy is Renaissance Learning, which is reliable in its word counts, adds new books at a rapid clip, and is also addictive. Search for the title of the book, and then click on the correct title on the next screen. You'll get word count, reader-interest level (Lower Grades, Middle Grades, Middle Grades Plus, or Upper Grades), and book level (a measure related to reading difficulty).

So yes, of course it's pointless to try to write a novel of a certain length. But it's not necessarily pointless to familiarize yourself with words counts of other books in your genre. For example, recently I've noticed a trend toward increasing length in young-adult fantasy novels: five or ten years ago they might have averaged around 60,000 to 80,000 words, but lately many of the big names are weighing in more toward 100,000 words (The Hunger Games is 99,750). This trend may have been reinforced by the later Harry Potter books (The Order of the Phoenix is a whopping 257,000 words, which is only 8,000 words shy of James Joyce's Ulysses) and Twilight (119,000), but fantasy readers have always had large appetites for words.

Following word count trends and seeing your book as an editor sees it—a product nested in a sea of other products—are useful tools. In moderation.

[For beginning children's writers who need rules of thumb about book lengths by genre, see Cynthea Liu's web site, and Harold Underdown's Purple Crayon site, where he covers picture books and easy readers, and novels and other books with chapters.]


  1. So true. It's not great to write to a certain length -- your story is your story. But if you want to see that story shelved next to other similar books that kids are picking up, it has to be in the ballpark!

    And watching my own children's reading trends, they announce the book length before they plunge ahead -- the same way they announce how deep the hotel swimming pool is before diving in.

    Size matters.

  2. Excellent post, Elizabeth. Thank you for it, and thanks to Harold who posted a link on Facebook.

    As a writer who was asked to add to the word count, I know the other side of this equation, and it is just as demeaning. I let my editors know that I don’t work well with numbers. But I do respond to ‘where and what,’ and will weigh specific suggestions for additions with utmost respect. I like the results.

    Being familiar with the parameters is one thing, and recommended. Being a slave to them is another.

  3. hey my name is Stewart carver and i am 17 years old. i have always liked books like the hunger games and harry potter. i have recently decide to write my own book and i am about to reach 11,000 words and i was curios how much a proper length book is. im no expert and i am looking for feedback. if you would be intrested in my book please email me at thank you for any feedback or hints you can give

    1. Hi Stewart,
      I hope you're having fun with your writing, because that's the most important thing (more important than word count or basically anything). For rules-of-thumb about length, look up Cynthea Liu's link and Harold Underdown's link in the last paragraph of my post. Their web sites are chock full of other interesting writing tips, too...

  4. hi elizabeth,
    my names Ashleigh, im 16, and my main passion is writing.
    i've been writing a book for the past two years, as of a month ago and it's currently just reached 45,000 words. i'm about three quarters of the way through it. My biggest dream is too have it published, but it's so difficult for somebody my age. i'm incredibally passionate about my story and i put so much into it. Do you have any tips for me to get it published? ive considored self publishing, but i would perfer to have it published and on a bookshelf. it really is important to me.

    1. Hi Ashleigh,
      It's so great that teens like you and Stewart (above) are already interested in writing, and attempting book-length works. You'll go far if you keep it up, because practice is everything in this craft. I would give you the same professional advice I offer adults: try to go to writing conferences, and try to find a writing group you can work with. It's an essential part of the process to have other writers (preferably people who are striving for publication, too, not just friends and family) read and critique your work. Also, when you go to college you're in a perfect position to take courses that make you read all the classics (a boon to your voice and to your knowledge of plot) and to write creatively under the guidance of a professor. Take advantage of it! (I didn't, I majored in Bio and regret it.) Don't try to publish a work too early; revise, revise, revise, get critiques and revise again. You're young, so you can focus on honing yourself as a writer--make that your goal for the moment. --Elizabeth

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  7. Hello Elizabeth! I'm Cayla, and I am 13 years old. My two passions are writing and music, and I recently realized that it's never too early to make your dreams come true. For the past two years, my sister and I have been singing and released our debut album. But I've also been writing, and my novel is currently past 106k. I just wanted to thank you for the invaluable advice in this article and many more. Thanks for inspiring me!