Originally published in the Sept/Oct 2004 SCBWI-MI Newsletter.
It’s a simple question—How long should my story be?—with a complicated answer: as long as it needs to be. Not a single word more or less.
I’ve heard several children’s literature luminaries answer that question the same way, and I do know what they mean. Writers should not write for a specific word count; quality is more important than quantity. Subject matter, language, and structure combine to determine the appropriate audience, and therefore, length, for any given story. Only after figuring those things out should a writer bother to trim or expand to meet the format of a particular genre. Fair enough.
But I’ve also heard a speaker refuse to give ballpark word counts for particular genres in an attempt to underscore the importance of thoughtful writing. My advice would be a little bit different. Don’t get bogged down in the word count, but don’t ignore it entirely. Does size matter? Sometimes. Counting words can be extremely helpful in two ways: increasing motivation, and providing perspective.
The Dangling Carrot
Sometimes a story is intimidating in scope or structure…or simply because time is short. Picturing a word count finish line helps me keep plugging away. I ran for fitness in high school and college. No matter what shape I was in, starting a long run always feltintimidating. So I stopped thinking about three, four, or five miles and started thinking in terms of houses and blocks and streets. There are times when my goal is as modest as “write 200 good words per session.” If I’m working on a picture book, I know that five sessions of 200 good words will usually take me to the end of a decent first draft. This spring, I was struggling to finish the final third of a YA novel I’ve been working on for three years. I used an estimated word count to gauge my progress: almost halfway there; probably 2-3 chapters to go; 3 or so more pages…until I reached The End. It worked. I finally finished it, twenty pages past my estimated endpoint. I wasn’t constricted by having an estimated word count, I was inspired by it. Having a number to shoot for helps me break big tasks into smaller, more manageable goals.
The other time that word counts help is during revision. After a writer gets a story down on paper, using as many words as feels right, it’s time to clean it up. Sometimes that means trimming and sometimes it means fleshing it out. There’s no magic number that makes a perfect picture book or mid-grade novel or easy reader. But if you study what’s popular within each genre, you will find patterns. I use these patterns as a thumbnail tool to examine the pace of my stories. Tight writing is strong writing, whether your story is a picture book or YA historical novel with lots of description and dialogue. Comparing your word count to existing titles is a good way to see if and where your story fits the market.
So what about those ballpark wordcounts? The kind folks at Revisers ‘R’ Us have scoured bookstore and library shelves to provide these general word counts for manuscripts:
- Board Books: ~ 100 words
- Young Picture Books: ~ 200-400 words
- Picture Books for preschoolers: ~ 500-1000 words
- Non-fiction Picture Books: ~ 1000-1800 words
- Picture Story Books: ~ 1,000-2,000 words
- Easy Readers: ~ 600-800 words (varies widely depending on grade level; very early readers are much, much shorter)
- Hi-Lo Books: ~ 700-1,000 words
- Chapter Books: ~ 6,000-10,000 words
- Mid-grade Novels: ~15,000-25,000 words
- Young Adult Novels: ~30,000-60,000 words
And what about books like the Harry Potter titles? They’re exceptional at 80,000+ words. But this information is helpful, too. Fantasy novels tend to be longer, as does historical fiction.
Remember, these numbers aren’t hard and fast. They’re ballparks. Try not to count your chickens—or manuscripts—before they’re hatched. Go ahead and write your story with all the blood, sweat, and tears it requires. Make sure it has compelling characters, a good problem, and a beginning, middle, and end. Then take out a “ruler” and make some measurements. Remove any words that haven’t earned their space and make room for anything important you might have left out.
Feeling plucky about your latest project? Renaissance Learning’s website is a quick and easy way to check the word count and reading level for many books in print. Visit the Renaissance Learning website. On that page, search for books by title or author. A list of matching titles will pop up; click on individual titles to see the word count, page count, and reading level.