As a freelance editor, I am sometimes asked by clients to help refine their word count—to recommend either cuts or additions that would bring the word count into an acceptable range. However, I’ve often found that clients aren’t quite sure what range their word count ought to fall into, or are completely unaware of their genre’s restrictions.
Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that you’ll find a wide range of numbers, depending on who you ask. There are no definite rules here, and there are always exceptions. However, you’ll want to keep within the general guidelines of your category and genre as much as possible, especially if you’re pursuing traditional publishing. Editors and agents may be less likely to take on a manuscript that’s too far outside the expected range. And don’t forget that readers have expectations, too—you don’t want to disappoint a reader with a work that’s too short, or exhaust them with one that’s too long.
Additionally, if you’re way over or under the expected word count for your genre, that’s probably a sign that there’s a problem with your manuscript. If your WIP is over 100k, that should indicate that you need to do some cutting. In fact, 100k is probably a good upper limit for most genres. Fantasy can sometimes go higher, but I would advise debut novelists to stay below 100k if possible. On the lower end of the scale, anything below 50 to 60k is probably a sign that your story isn’t fleshed out enough (unless you’re writing children’s fiction).
Of course, there are always exceptions. You can easily find outliers on both ends of the scale. But for a debut novelist trying to get published, having a word count that’s drastically outside of the expected range is going to make the process even more difficult.
Having said that, I don’t think the word count is something you need to stress about during a first draft. You can—and should—refine in later drafts. But if you’re currently revising in hopes of pursuing traditional publication, it’s a good idea to double-check that your word count is within an acceptable range for your genre.
So, what is an acceptable range for your genre? Here are some average ranges that I would recommend for common genres/categories. (Keep in mind that these are just estimates, and there are always exceptions. Also, I’d like to note that, as an editor and writer, I work primarily with adult and new adult romance, young adult fiction, and middle grade fiction, so my estimates for other genres may not be as accurate.)
Romance: 80 to 100k
Category romance: 50 to 75k (though different lines have very different requirements)
Mysteries/thrillers/crime fiction: 70 to 100k
Science fiction and fantasy: 85 to 120k
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
Contemporary/realistic: 45 to 70k
Fantasy: 65 to 100k
MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
Contemporary/realistic: 30 to 45k
Fantasy: 45 to 75k
Chapter book: 5 to 10k
Early reader: 100 to 2,500 words
Picture book: 300 to 1,000 words
Still not sure where your book fits in? If you’re writing young adult or other children’s fiction, I’d recommend using the AR Bookfinder. You can use this tool to search for specific titles like your MS and get all kinds of information about them, including the word count. If you have comp titles in mind for your manuscript, check out how long they are and compare to your WIP’s word count.
How long is your MS? Do you think word count is important? Let me know in the comments!
Interested in professional editorial services for your work? Check out my Services page for more information about working with me.