Word Count

Thursday, July 30, 2009
Ever since we’ve been able to string our first sentence together—See Jane run—and instructors have been handing out writing assignments, we’ve asked the age old question… How long? How long does the sentence have to be? The paragraph? The term paper? The thesis? The chapter? The book?

Some people want their answer to be straightforward, as my English teacher from high school would like to assign her lessons. “It needs to be 2,000 words long with ten paragraphs and a maximum of five auxiliary verbs.” Yeah, those were some tough papers to write… or as I should say without the auxiliary verb… That teacher possessed a strict guideline despite the fact I fondly remember her as one of the greatest grammarians ever. But my favorite answer to the question HOW LONG came from my middle school English teacher. “It’s like a mini skirt. Make sure it’s long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to stay interesting.” Yes, he was a male teacher, if you were curious!

I’m by no means an authority on the length question, but today I’m going to share what knowledge I do have on the subject. How long.

We’ll start with sentences. Sounds like a good place to me. I’d always heard a sentence was a subject and a verb containing a complete thought. “Jane ran.” Subject, verb, complete thought. There’s our sentence. Sounds simple enough. So, let’s make it a little more complex. “As Jane ran barefoot between the towering oaks in the woods next to the house where she grew up.” Yes, it still has the subject—Jane—and the verb—ran—but we lost our complete thought after adding “As” to the beginning. As Jane’s running wherever she’s going to run, we need to follow that thought up with what happened while she was running. Or… we could simply delete “AS” to give the sentence a complete thought and make it grammatically correct. Am I making any sense yet? A sentence needs to be long enough to contain a subject (even if it’s only implied), verb, and complete thought.

Okay, I had to go to a dictionary to get the correct definition of a paragraph. So, according to dictionary.com, a paragraph is “a basic unit of prose. It is usually composed of several sentences that together develop one central idea. The main sentence in a paragraph is called the topic sentence.” I have a bad habit of falling into a rut over paragraph length. I get to thinking,this paragraph is way too long, no reader is gonna want to read such a long paragraph.” So, I’ll press enter and indent, starting a new one… whether that’s right or wrong. But we should always remember to keep sentences with one central idea together.

Here’s one trick you could do to cut a paragraph shorter if you’re getting nervous about its length. Say you’re writing a scene where the hero just laid eyes on the woman who’ll end up being his heroine. He’s probably going to describe what she looks like. If he likes what he sees, he might have a lot of description, which would most likely make a lengthy paragraph. So, if he’s just described her hair, and eyes, and legs, and said how soft her skin looked, you could break the paragraph and make a short new one by making a side note—or rather internal monologue if you will—like, “He’d really like to find out just how soft that skin was.” That sentence doesn’t go with the central idea of the paragraph; it really needs its own paragraph all by itself. Ergo, you’d have a nice little break there before starting a new paragraph to describe more traits of your amazing heroine. Plus, it makes the story more interesting to read it in that conversational way.

I’m letting Noah Lukeman take care of my chapter length discussion. Author of The First Five Pages (which is a book EVERY writer should own), Lukeman says on Page 172 of his book:
"Each chapter must be thought of as its own complete unit, ready to excerpt should a magazine want it (indeed, this very chapter was excerpted prior to publication); the same holds true for paragraphs and sentences. Do you resolve in the end of the chapter what you establish in the beginning? Many writers don't; they just plug along, inserting chapter breaks wherever they feel their text can use one—sometimes completely arbitrarily. Writers often ask me: How long should my chapters be? Is five pages too short: Is forty too long? The fact that they're even asking this question indicates they're thinking of the chapters in the wrong way—merely as dividers for a greater whole. Of course, a chapter needs to be part of a greaterwhole, but it also needs to be its own unit. The appropriate length is whatever length is necessary to accomplish whatever that individual chapters sets out to do. "

After reading that great piece of spectacular advice, I probably don’t even need to go into book length. A story, of course, should be as long as it needs to be to set up a conflict and then unravel a resolution for that conflict. The problem with that answer occurs when we’ve finished our story and begin looking for a publisher who’ll actually buy a book within the limits of your word count. In the romance industry, you’ll probably notice if you’ve ever done any publisher research that most places want stories to be around 100,000 words long. Harlequin and Silhouette like stories between 50,000 words and 65,000 for a majority of their category lines. So, if you’ve written a 75,000 word story, you might think you’re stuck in a no-man’s land. The uprising of e-publishers saved the day there, because a good portion of them will accept a story anywhere from 15,000 words to 125,000 words. Thanks guys!

A couple vices to help you control word count are subplots, secondary characters, and added conflicts. If you need to shrink your word count to pursue a certain line, try taking out a couple minor characters. You might be amazed how much that’ll lighten the load. Or in the opposite case, you need to make the story just 10,000 words longer, add another character. Each person in a story has their own agenda and mindset, and the more people your novel contains, the more complex and longer it’ll be.

So, okay, there’s my writing advice for the day. Since I’m definitely not a professional on the topic, any additional comments and tips are always appreciated. Thanks!


  1. Great post!

    Most single title publishers will take 80-90,000 word stories now-saves them on paper and production costs. YA books run anywhere from 70-90,000 words in length. So there is variation out there in the print world as well as ebooks.


  2. Hey, that's wonderful to know. Thank you so much, Nancy. I just love it when a publisher's changing policy actually makes things easier for a writer.