Welcome to our writing advice column, where you'll find bestselling author Julie Cohen answering reader questions! Hit a roadblock or have a writing-related query? Drop them in the comments or email email@example.com and keep your eyes peeled for Julie’s response in later columns. This week, Julie tackles word counts.
I need help with length and structure! How many words should my manuscript be? It’s a women’s fiction book with a dash of romance. How many words should I be aiming for total? How many words per chapter? How many chapters? So many questions!
The answer to so many writing questions is so often ‘Well, it depends.’ It’s nice to have a question with a definite answer, for once.
Well, almost definite.
The length of most mainstream published women’s commercial fiction novels is between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Occasionally you might see a longer one; very rarely a shorter. If you aim for about 90,000 words you won’t go far wrong, and you’ll have room to expand or cut, as is necessary. Maybe even both.
Epublishers and self-published writers may have books which are shorter than this. The guidelines here are much more fluid, maybe because a book that would look frustratingly slim on a physical shelf actually looks like a perfect short read on an e-reader. You can check the publisher’s requirements. I’d say that 50-60,000 words is minimum for a short novel – any shorter would be a novella. But individual publishers may have their own word count guidelines.
As far as chapter length and number of chapters goes: this is really up to you. In my mind, a chapter should feel like a rounded unit, but it should also leave enough hanging so that the reader wants to keep reading at the end. A chapter should be, in my opinion, about as long as it needs to be. If a chapter feels too long to you and there’s a good place to break it, go ahead; if it feels too short and you like how it combines with another chapter, go ahead with that too.
Shorter chapters sometimes feel pacier, and make the book read faster; longer ones might be more contemplative. I think the shortest chapter I’ve ever written in one of my books was one sentence long. Stephenie Meyer had a chapter that consisted of only blank pages. But that’s not a trick you want to pull too often. Mostly you want … I’m guessing between five and twenty pages as a rough guideline? You can vary chapter length within the book; sometimes it’s nice to have a short chapter after a long one, to give the reader a little break. But it’s not necessary.
The only rule is that whenever you can, you should end a chapter in a way that makes the reader think: ‘Oh, I’ll just read one more.’ And begin the next in a way that makes the reader glad that she kept going.
Mostly though Sarah, this is the answer: let the length of your chapters, and the length of your novel, serve your story. Worry about it a bit, as a general guideline, but don’t worry about it like crazy. Don’t use word count as a whip or as an immovable target or limit. Don’t think that just because you’ve got to 90k words that you have to be finished, if you haven’t wrapped things up yet. A first draft should generally be as long as it has to be. You can cut, or add, in revisions. And as always, if the story is good enough, it can break every rule.
So I guess once again the answer is … Well, it depends?
Julie Cohen has had 20 books published under her own name and pseudonyms, selling nearly a million copies and being translated into 15 languages. Several have won or been shortlisted for awards, including the Romantic Novelists' Association's Award and the National Readers’ Choice Award. Her novel Dear Thing was a summer 2014 Richard and Judy Book Club pick.
Julie is also a popular speaker and teacher of creative writing, tutoring courses for Penguin Random House Academy, The Guardian, Literature Wales, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and Writers' Workshop. She runs a fiction consultancy business, with several of her clients having gone on to publication. Her latest book is Where Love Lies.