Here’s the short answer—novel chapters tend to be 3,000-5,000 words. James Patterson’s chapters have 250-500 words, though. So, what’s a writer to do? Here’s one idea. You can take the number of chapters (or main ideas or scenes) you want to include in your book, then take the total word count of the book, and do the math. If you want to end up with 30 chapters and you’re writing a fantasy book, you’d divide 100,000 (the average total word count for the genre) by 30. That’s going to leave you with 3,333-word chapters.
Aspiring writers often wonder about the appropriate length for a book. “How many words should I write to make my book a bestseller?” they ask. “How many pages?” The answer varies, depending on the book’s genre.
Even within a genre, different subgenres have unique standards for length. In this article, we’ll discuss the typical number of words for short stories, fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books. Within each genre, we’ll look at subcategories to see how the book-length differs, depending on the subject. For instance, within the category of adult fiction, you’ll find romance novels, fantasy novels, mystery novels, historical fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, and thrillers. Each subgenre has a different average word count.
Before we begin, it’s important to understand why word count is important. For first-time writers, publishing houses expect to receive submissions from trusted literary agents. Many agents review a large number of unsolicited submissions, and they are likely to eliminate any manuscript that falls outside the normal word and page count. If you’ve written your first book, you’ll be more likely to get a second look if you show an understanding of the genre in which you’re writing. One way to do this is by writing a book of the appropriate length. On the other hand, if you’re going to be self-publishing, you have a bit more freedom to make your book as long or short as you like.
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Standard novel length would be 80,000-89,999 words, although novels commonly fall into the 90,000-99,000 range as well. Write anything below 70,000 or above 110,000 words, and you shouldn’t expect an email back.
Romance novels can vary, but those published with major publishing companies usually fall within the 70,000 to 100,000-word range.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi
It’s not unusual to see a 130,000-word novel in these genres. In fact, fantasy and sci-fi books are some of the longest published, probably because they require a lot of world-building and explanation. They usually contain 50,000-150,000 words.
Mystery books hit the sweet spot when they’re between 40,000 and 80,000 words. Readers enjoy a smaller word count range because it allows them to find out “whodunnit” faster. Also, many mystery books are published as a series. Since the investigator usually remains constant from book to book, there’s less of a need for lengthy exposition to introduce him (or her).
Historical fiction tends to contain more detailed descriptions than a standard fiction novel, which may account for the slightly longer-than-average length. A full-length book would contain 80,000-100,000 words.
Thrillers tend to have the same length as literary fiction and memoirs. Expect to write 70,000-90,000 words.
Each short story contains between 1,500-30,000 words. Across the publishing industry, the number of words in a short story anthology can vary widely. For that reason, there’s no ideal word count for a short story anthology.
A piece of writing is considered a novella when it’s between 30,000 and 50,000 words. Sometimes, publishers combine two or three novellas by the same author to produce a standard-length book.
Since memoirs should be edited down to contain only the relevant stories related to a theme, they typically run 70,000-90,000 words. Many literary agents indicate that a shorter memoir submission is easier to work with, since it indicates that the author knows how to cut unnecessary stories and details.
Because a biography often covers the entire lifespan of a famous figure, it may be much longer than the average novel—80,000-200,000 words.
Self-help authors aim to instruct their readers in simple and straightforward terms. In this subgenre, brevity is rewarded. Books tend to be between 40,000 and 50,000 words.
Standard History, Political Science, Psychology, Etc.
Standard nonfiction falls into the 70,000-80,000-word range. These books are slightly shorter than the standard novel.
Teen and Children’s Books
These books, intended for small children, range from 300 to 800 words and usually don’t have any chapters at all.
These books, aimed at children ages 7-10, usually contain 4000 to 10,000 words.
Middle grade books target children ages 8-12. An average middle grade book will have between 25,000 and 40,000 words.
Young adult books cover more mature themes, and they often contain 50,000-80,000 words. They’re geared toward readers between 13 and 18 years old.
Now that you know the standard lengths for a few genres and subgenres, you may want to add to your manuscript or prune it. If you’re a rebel, you may decide that your story needs to be longer (or shorter) than average. First-time writers may have trouble finding a literary agent with an unusual manuscript; however, it can be done. Certainly, history remembers the successful authors who have broken the mold with their debut novels. The Seattle Public Library even put together a list of novels with unusual formats, and a number of them were written by—you guessed it—debut novelists.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.