Novel and Short Story Word Counts

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Q. How long is the typical short story supposed to be? How about novellas and novels? Are there guidelines with regard to word count for a first-time novelist? —Molly Heyl

A. There are general guidelines for each literary category: Short stories range anywhere from 1,500 to 30,000 words; Novellas run from 30,000 to 50,000; Novels range from 55,000 to 300,000 words, but I wouldn’t recommend aiming for the high end, as books the length of War & Peace aren’t exactly the easiest to sell.

Agent Lori Perkins of the L. Perkins Agency in New York says it’s much easier to market a first-time novelist’s book if the word count falls between 80,000 and 100,000 words, or roughly 300 double-spaced, typed pages—the average novel length.

“One-third of the novels that come into the agency are rejected because they’re too long or short,” Perkins says. “The cost greatly increases on books larger than 100,000 words, so agents and publishers are less likely to gamble on a manuscript the size of a dictionary.”

When you’re writing, though, don’t impose word limits on yourself. Let the story flow without interruption. Wait until you finish the first draft to go back and tighten it to a reasonable length. Save every scene you cut, though. It may lead you to another story.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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