Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Writing: Word Count and Why Does It Matter?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 13, 2017

When you are talking about works of fiction, authors and editors often refer to word count. Why does the number of words matter? As a reader, I really don’t care. I’m not counting.

Naturally, when you are taking things to print, page count matters, because that directly impacts the cost of production. In the digital book world, it’s a little fuzzier, but it’s still a thing. As a reader, that impacts me as well, especially when I’m deciding between diving into a massive Brandon Sanderson tome or a thin little indie urban fantasy. A word count can be a proxy for page count (somewhere around 300 words to the page), although that’s nuanced as well. As David Farland has explained on a few occasions, from a publisher’s or typesetter’s perspective a character count is a far more useful metric. For estimating page count, they assume a “word” is six character spaces (often five letters plus a space). While I won’t argue with him, I think that the ease of obtaining the word count from word processing software is making the “incorrect” method more popular among newer editors and publishers.

Many editors charge by the word. This is a useful proxy for the amount of work that is necessary, although again… not all words are created equal, not all editing jobs are equal. Some authors may need more work done on 10,000 words than others would need in 30,000.

Back in the pulp days, things got pretty loose for a while in definitions. The magazines advertised novels, novellas, novelettes (with several different spellings of the word), serial novels, and short stories (not to mention poetry) without clear-cut definitions about what constituted what. I’ve read “novels” contained in old pulps that were probably not much more than 10,000 words. While there’s still not a clear-cut definition, many places use the definitions established by the SFWA, which they use for the purpose of awards categorization. Their definitions are:

  • Up to 7500 words: Short Story
  • 7500 – 17,499 words: Novelette
  • 17,500 – 39,999 words: Novella
  • 40,000 words or more: Novel

That’s all well and good for the purpose of award categories. In modern practice, novelettes and novellas tend to be harder sells than they were back in the pulp era. So it’s tougher to get them published, but on the plus side, there’s less competition for those award categories!

However, this isn’t just categorization for the sake of awards. The size will also impact how the story is structured, number of major characters, subplots, try/fail cycles, etc. Obviously (I hope), a short story isn’t just a really condensed novel. A novella and a novelette aren’t quite such different beasts (especially if you are talking about a long novelette and a short novella), but those sizes will impact the kind of stories that get told.

It doesn’t end there. The SFWA designations were kind of a product of the mid-20th century publishing industry, but things are changing all the time. Flash fiction has enjoyed a huge increase in popularity, carving out a niche for itself at the bottom of the short story range. NaNoWriMo has established 50,000 words as their size for a novel (“about the length of The Great Gatsby“). I’ve often seen 8000 words as the upper limit for a short story. So we can add a few more categories here:

  • 100 words (or less): Microfiction
  • 101 words  – 1000 words: Flash Fiction
  • 110,000+ words: Epic novel

For most competitions or open fiction calls, the submission guidelines rule the word count. If they say, “We want short stories of up to 5000 words,” then a 7400-word story is going to have a tough time even getting looked at, let alone accepted, even though it’s still technically a “short story.” However, some submission guidelines are a bit more loose. They may express a preference, or suggest that there’s less room for larger works like novellas. And while they might not be looking for flash fiction or really short stories (like in the 2500-word range), maybe an editor is coming in a tiny bit short one month, and that 2500 word story is exactly what they need.

For invitations to anthologies, it may also be pretty loose. An editor may say they are interested in flash fiction or short stories, or say they’d be open to something novelette-sized. In the latter case, if I have found myself threatening to go over the suggested word count in spite of my best efforts, I may talk to the editor (since it was an invitation) and see if it’s okay. Even if they aren’t paying you by the word, they may have page counts they have to work within, and you do NOT want to surprise them with something twice the size that they expected. That does not lead to happiness or repeat invitations.

And speaking of expectations, when you start getting into novels, the audiences have different expectations for approximate size, too. Genre and age category makes a huge difference. A novel for middle-grade readers might actually be less than 40,000 words, and that’s okay. But try and sell a 40,000 word novel to an adult Epic Fantasy audience, and they are likely to feel ripped off. Anything less than 100,000 words might feel too small for them. Reedsy has a good post about this on their blog, called How Many Words in a Novel?

If you are a first-time author submitting a novel to publisher, your best bet is to stay inside the size guidelines for your audience and genre. If you are an established author or an indie self-publishing your novel, then there will probably be a bit more flexibility. It’s still not wise to go too far outside the bounds unless you are taking your established audience with you. J K Rowling could only have made Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at over 250,000 words because she’d sold a zillion copies of Harry Potter and the Philosophers (Sorcerer’s) Stone at under 80,000 words. It probably didn’t hurt that she ramped up the word count on the intervening books leading to Order of the Phoenix, too.

Editing costs, print costs, audience and publisher expectations, the kind of story being told, publication plans (and pricing), genre, and audience expectations are all factors to be considered when answering the question of “how big should this story be?” And the answer is usually measured in word count. It’s fuzzy, and there are no perfect answers. The industry is changing constantly, which means the best answer today might be the worst answer tomorrow.

At least it’s not boring.

(Incidentally, this blog post is nearly 1100 words long, including this sentence).

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