Much Ado About Word Count

Our entire academic life we are taught to hit a word count, to fill the void on the paper with meaningless jibber jabber until we hit that magic number that is the word count. And then you get to graduate school and they tell you they want you to “be concise”, and get to the point. How is it fair that we are first raised to believe one set of rules for the creation of our writing and then forced to neglect those instincts in the higher realms of education? The institution that we grew up in made us one way, and that same institution then told us to be something else. Can we stop forcing young adults to hit a word count? It’s detrimental to education and learning. If a student can express themselves in half the words as another student, they should not be punished for it. If a student is more articulate and has paired their thoughts down into the most rudimentary way of saying a thing, we should not be telling them to add more to it. All that we are teaching them is to bullshit their answers, to fill a void with false and forced thoughts.

This same logic spills over into the world of publishing. So many publishing houses require a certain word count for the stories they publish, which is forcing authors to fluff their stories with details and subjects that were never meant to be there. Sure, the reason for this is because people pay a certain amount of money, and therefore expect to buy products that are all the same size and reading length. However, are the stories suffering in leu of reaching a word count? How many stories have you read recently where you find yourself thinking “that was totally unnecessary”. If a story can be told in 50k words, or 60k, why are publishing houses forcing authors to reach 80k?

How long should a book be?

It should be as long as it takes to tell a good story. That’s not always going to be the same for every author, in every genre, and every manuscript.

Masterclass has provided a nice information post listing all of the word counts across publishing genres. I will list them below:

Thriller: A good suspense story has to keep the plot moving to keep the reader engaged. The ideal count for a mystery is a 70,000 and 90,000 word novel.

Science fiction and fantasy: Sci-fi novels are an art in world-building. The need to invent a completely new environment makes this genre longer than others. A fantasy novel will usually have 90,000 to 120,000 words.

Romance novels: Not every love story is an epic like Wuthering Heights. Romantic plots now tend to be fun, fast reads. Some are as short as 50,000 words—the perfect book for a beach vacation. The high-end romance novel word count is 100,000.

Historical fiction: Fleshing out an imagined historical world lends itself to a higher word count, so historical fiction tends to be closer to 100,000 words.

Non-fiction: There is no definitive word count guide for non-fiction books due to the many subgenres. If you’re writing a non-fiction book, be sure to look up that category to find the length of similar books. For example, memoirs are generally 80,000 to 90,00 words.

– MasterClass Staff, Word Count Guide: How Long Is a Book, Short Story, or Novella?

Clearly, the word count varies based on the genre, but why? Is the reason purely financial? What if a romance falls above the 100,000 limit? What if there’s that much to the story and the readers would love it? What if a thriller can be told in 50,000 words? How many stories are being massacred for the sake of word count? And how many are we straight up missing because they’ve been rejected for no other reason than word count?

Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest presents an article that discusses word count, with emphases not on the shortness of stories, but on the opposite; novels that are too long.

You have agents like Nathan Bransford (now formerly an agent) and Kristin Nelson who say that you shouldn’t think about word count, but rather you should think about pacing and telling the best story possible—and don’t worry about the length. Yes, they’re right, but the fact is: Not every agent feels that way and is willing to give a 139,000-word debut novel a shot. 

– Chuck Sambuchino, Writer’s Digest

In this regard, I do agree. Sometimes it is best to cut long-winded stories into either separate books, or remove all the extraneous writing to form a tight and concise single novel. However, I do not agree that authors should set out specifically to hit any certain word count. In my opinion, this stifles the creative flow of the story. Are we still teaching writers to fluff their work? Is the word count for published works a carryover from what we learned at a young age about hitting a certain standard word count? Are authors who write twice the recommended word count for their genre filling a void on the paper because they think the more they write, the better their book will be? Because I’ve read a lot of standard size books that have made me wish I had that chunk of my life back.

But publishing world aside, academic word count? Sometimes it’s easy to hit the word count because students have a lot to say, but other times, a short answer will suffice. So let them answer the question however they feel best fits the scenario. The focus should be on their level of thought, not on whether or not they reached twenty pages for their final paper. Now without further ado, I have made my point, so I will end my post here without rephrasing myself in fifty different ways.

Happy writing,
The Literary Kat

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