This question is often asked by first-time novelists, but before we delve into suggested word counts for novels and other genres, take a minute to consider these facts:
Victor Hugo's beloved classic, Les Misérables, was 420,000 words long, while Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea had just 26,000 words. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 contained 46,118 words, while John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath had 169,481 words. What do these numbers tell you?
Word count expectations can vary
As you can see, the word count of great literature from the past is widely different, depending on the novel. And even today, there are outliers to the word count average or norm that is expected (J.K. Rowling's books, for example).
There are, however, some general rules and expectations that are put out by various organizations or publishers. For example, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America offers these suggested lengths for its Nebula award categories:
- Novel—40,000 words or over
- Novella—17,500 to 39,999 words
- Novelette—7,500 to 17,499 words
- Short story—under 7,500 words
Author Chuck Sambuchino says between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range for literary, mainstream, women's, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. He writes,
Anything in this word count won't scare off any agent anywhere.
Jane Smiley, author of 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel suggests that the sweet spot of novel length is between 100,000 and 175,000 words.
Word counts broken down by genre
Anne R. Allen's blog, voted as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer's Digest, suggests the following word counts based on debut fiction. She breaks it down by genre to create even more specific guidelines.
- Picture Books—text: 500-1000 words (32 pages is ideal.)
- Middle Grade fiction—20,000 to 40,000. "Upper Middle Grade" can be a bit longer.
- Young Adult fiction—25,000 to 80,000.
- Chick Lit—60,000-75,000.
- Cozy Mysteries—55,000-70,000. *The author notes that Agatha Christies' mysteries tend to be around 40,000.
- Historical fiction—80,000 to 110,000+.
- Literary fiction—65,000 to 100,000,*The author notes that publishers are trending away from the higher numbers, preferring "Spare and elegant".
- Standard Mysteries and Crime Fiction—70,000 to 100,000.
- Romance—55,000 to 75,000.
- Science Fiction—75,000 to 100,000.
- Thrillers—80,0000 to 100,000.
- Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance—70,000 to 90,000.
- Westerns—50,000 to 80,000.
- Women's Fiction—70,000 to 100,000.
A final word
As you can see, word count averages and expectations will vary, depending on the type of novel you are writing and the genre into which it fits. These guidelines suggested by online resources will certainly have outliers and are by no means set in stone. However, if your debut novel veers outside of them, it might be a good idea to hire an editor to see if there are sections that could be cut to bring word count back into "normal" paremeters.