Length Matters: How Many Words Does It Take?
- February 17, 2021
- Connie Berry
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?Tags:
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