Length Matters: How Many Words Does It Take?

by Connie Berry

How long is a sentence?

The answer I got in junior high school was “long enough to finish the thought.” Cheeky.

For years, the longest sentence ever written in English was said to be Molly Bloom’s 3,687-word soliloquy in the James Joyce novel Ulysses (1922). However, one of the finalists for the 2019 Booker Prize was Lucy Ellman, whose 1,000-page Ducks, Newburyport consists mostly of a single sentence that runs to 426,000 words. Beat that if you can.

How long is a book?

That depends—on the genre. Readers and publishers have expectations. According to editor Dana Isaacson (Career Authors, May 14, 2018), a rough guide to word count looks like this:

Romance: 65,000–80,000 words

Mystery: 70,000—80,000 words

Science Fiction: 100,000–120,000 words

Thriller: 90,000–100,000 words

True Crime: 90,000–100,000 words

Historical Fiction: 100,000–150,000 words

Women’s Fiction: 90,000–100,000 words

Memoir/Bio: 70,000–90,000 words

Literary Fiction: 80,000–100,000 words

Young Adult: 70,000–80,000 words

Middle Grade: 40,000–50,000 words

Picture Books: 500–700 words

Not everyone pays attention to guidelines, of course.

Like Stephen King, whose thriller It runs to 445,134 words. Or George Orwell, author of the classic Animal Farm (only 29,966 words long). Or the famously succinct Ernest Hemingway who managed to write The Old Man and The Sea in only 26,601 words. As Dana Isaacson said, “Don’t groan. Flexibility is key to success.” Rules are meant to be broken, even though breaking those rules may make the path to publication longer and rockier.

The longest book I’ve ever read was the five-volume epistolary novel Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748), often included on lists of the best novels ever written in English. Total word count? One million. Talk about a marathon. Afterwards, my graduate-school professor threw us a party.

When choosing a book to read, do you consider the number of pages?

Writers, do you tend to write short and embellish, or do you write long and cut, cut, cut?

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6 thoughts on “Length Matters: How Many Words Does It Take?

  1. I don’t tend to check number of pages when selecting a book. (Although, I must confess when floating in the pool in the summer I have, on occasion, been dismayed to realize I selected a novella.)

    I write short. And then realize how much I’ve left out.

    1. You have a pool??! Oh, wait…we’re talking about books. Sorry, it’s zero out there today, I’m with you, Eileen. It’s the story that matters. I’ve read huge thick books and been sorry because I wanted to stay in that world longer.

  2. I’m very used to just under 300 pages. Anything longer than that starts to feel long to me. There are some exceptions that are worth it, but there are other times when I am reading a book and it feel longs. I check work count, and I figure out why.

  3. Mark, that’s a good benchmark. For me, the book seems “long” or “short” depending on how engrossed I am in the story. Sometimes when I finish a really terrific story, I’m in mourning for a day or so (until I find the next one). That’s what I love about series–except I usually have to wait a year or so between episodes.

  4. I tend to write short and then have to feed it some ice cream and pie to fatten it up.

    I will read long books with pleasure if they’re good. I’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell twice and loved every second and was sad both times when I finished it.

    But I’m a sucker for a good short story too. Basically, if it’s good, I’ll read it.

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