|"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.]