And Miles to Go Before I Sleep

It's big and it's spectacular!

I’ve often wondered how people know in advance how long they want their novels to be. I see occasional posts on Facebook that read something like, “Only 10,074 more words till I reach the end of my WIP!!! SQUEE!!!”

How do people figure out in advance how long they want their books to be? My brain just does not work that way. Probably because some sort of math would be involved.

I’ve also read stories about a publisher sending a manuscript back to an author with a note directing the author to add 15,000 words. I can only suppose this is how we end up with books that contain long passages in which the author describes in exquisite detail the flocking on the wallpaper in a room. In the same position, I might be tempted to add “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” 1500 times.

I have read some books wherein it seemed rather obvious to me the author was padding the word count. I wish they would set those passages apart in some way—maybe make the text red, or include a note from the author that reads, “The next several pages are pure crap the publisher wanted me to add to get the page count up so they could charge more for the book. You can skip it if you want. Nothing of import happens, I promise.”

Is word count something consumers care about? I have to believe it is. The problem is that they think different things about it. Some people don’t even want to start a 700 page epic, no matter how well it is written. Some people will heft up a small book and come to the opposite conclusion, that if there isn’t all that many words, it must not be very interesting, and go spend their ninety-nine cents elsewhere.

Yet, while quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive, neither are they always companions. I can hardly think it would be of much help to make a bad story longer. It reminds me of the old joke:

Cavalry Captain: “Men, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we’re trapped here and there is nothing left to eat but horse crap.”

Soldier: “What the hell is the bad news?”

Cavalry Captain: “There’s plenty of it.”

I see the author’s job as being one of telling a good story from the beginning to the end. That may take 40,000 words, or it may take 150,000 words. Torturing a story to meet a word count seems inherently wrong to me. What are your thoughts?

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Stephen Hise is an author and the Founder and Evil Mastermind of Indies Unlimited. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and his website:


Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

31 thoughts on “And Miles to Go Before I Sleep”

  1. In my opinion a book should be however many words long as it takes to say what it needs to in the best way possible. Aiming for a particular word count smacks of formula to me. Ugh.

    1. I agree completely Yvonne! Sadly traditional publishing seems to be all about formulas these days – if XX sells then we want more of XX and forget about anything that may be XY. I can understand how any business would be risk averse in the current climate but I can't see formulaic writing extending the publishing life-span at all.

      It's interesting that large corporations rarely innovate. Most of the cutting edge stuff seems to come from small businesses that think outside the straightjacket.

      I love the fact that we are all part of a movement of innovators. Now if only we could get paid for being so courageous and daring. 😀

  2. EXCELLENT post. I find the notion ridiculous. Sometimes a story wants to be 70K words. Sometimes 175 words. Aiming at a target word count is weird to me (NANOWRIMO excluded). I loathe math as well, but seriously, unless you are psychic….

    Interestingly, Joe Cafe is about 50K. A little over. A SHORT novel. And I have heard 'good, but too short' and 'perfect length, punchy and succinct'.

    It strikes me as deciding how tall you are going to be when you are 5.

  3. I absolutely agree. Too many people agonize over word count when, in reality, the public doesn't give a flippin' hoot. The reader wants to get from A to B without realizing it took any work at all. Whether that takes 10k or 110k, it shouldn't matter, especially in an increasingly digital world. Quality over quantity, in my opinion. 🙂

  4. I agree with Yvonne, except I think many people, even those who read voraciously, are put off by an 800 page book. I think the marketing for such a novel would have to be really incisive.

    The first three Harry Potter books were short. The "Goblet of Fire" was a great book, my favorite one, I believe over 800 pages. But, she already had her readers hook, line, and sinker.

    1. I agree that 800 pages for a first book will put some buyers off – but look at Hunger Games. As with everything, there are exceptions. But to pad a story because it is too short just makes no sense to me.

  5. The only time word count really mattered to me was when I submitted my column to the paper. My personal stuff? When it's done, it's done. Then I count.

  6. Since I grew up in the "print" era, I'm accustomed to trying to keep a book to less than 300 pages so the price won't be prohibitive. If someone's just going solely ebook, it really doesn't matter how long the project is. Well said, Evil Mastermind. I give this post 4.5 pyramids out of 5.

    1. 4.5 sounds pretty good. Wait – this isn't on a scale of 1 – 1,000 pyramids is it? Oops, should have read that last line. Guess I got the word count wrong.

  7. I planned on my first book to be a novella and the story kinda got the best of me and it ended up at over 140,000 words…so I guess I'm not one to plan out my word count. The only time I have to watch my word count is on the Flash Fiction Challenges here :).

  8. I think Kat brought up a point that needs to be considered when talking word count. That particular word counts are an artifact of paper books (and magazines and newspapers). Part of that is production cost or (available column inches in newspapers and magazines). Publishers often had word count ranges they aimed for and (my guess is) this translated into genre conventions (most romance novels are 45K words, plus or minus 5K).

    If you aren't dealing with a publisher who dictates word count and you don't have paper costs and production constraints you have to work within, then now you can use the number of words that are needed. That was one of the big marketing points Amazon used for the Kindle singles program, that it filled the gap between the longest short story any magazine would take and the shortest practical novel length. (I saw a couple ranges, but I think it was roughly 15-35K words.)

    I should point out that the guidelines for guest posts at IU has a maximum word count. I'm guessing there is a reason for that, so word count in some situations might still matter, even if it isn't for paper.

    1. Well said, Al. Perhaps word count for books is a remnant of days gone by. Our guest post word count is more of a guideline than a rule. We have been known to break long posts into parts and run them as a series. 🙂

  9. I do have word counts in mind when I plan a book. Not that they end up being that length, but it indicates to me that I have a full story, and not just a single plot line. I aim for 60K words on the first draft, and end up somewhere between 50 and 80K.

    Yes, a story does take what it takes, but I have this horrible fear (not without precedent) that I will run out of story at 30K words if I don't aim for 60.

    As it turns out, my books range in length from about 57K to 82K.

    Good post.

  10. Good points Stephen,

    When first approaching the YA market, I kept reading that my novel must be between 50 and 80k words. Huh?! Are they trying to dumb down youngsters or do parents put the kids to bed after 80K words.

    I write until its done, then chop out about 15% of the useless stuff during the revisions. So word count is really tough to come by. With The Card, I came in at a neat 63,000 words. Not by some preconceived plan mind you.

  11. As long as I hit 50K for NaNo, I don't care how long it ends up being. 😉

    I think people who care are into labeling their work — is it an honest-to-goodness novel? a novella? a novelette? a really long short story? Whatev. Does the author tell the story within the words he/she has written? That's all that really matters.

  12. I also have a designated "aim for" on each novel. Depending on the genre, I try to aim for 60k. Some novels (after editing) ended up being a little shy of that and other were about or longer.

    I remember being told at one point the definitions of "short story", "novella", and "novel". (These were a long, long time ago.) I was distinctly told repeatedly (alas, often by other writers) that my story was "too short" to be considered a novel, or "too long" to be considered a short story. I found that immensely irritating, and decided then that what those people said didn't matter. Obviously a twenty page story I don't consider a novel. But 35k words? Possibly. Just look at Orwell's Animal Farm or Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Low word count, still considered classic novels.

    The important thing (like Lynne says) is whether or not the story is being told as concisely and informatively as possible within the word count they've written. And that isn't up to us so much as it's up to the readers.

    BC Brown ~ Paranormal, Mystery, Romance, Fantasy

    "Because Weird is Good."

  13. When the story is told, the work is done. That's what I think. Unless I'm writing to a word count for a client, to fit column inches or make web reading easier. Great point, folks.

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