What's the right word count for a novel?

by simon on February 20, 2011

1984 novel front cover

Like many writers, I’ve sometimes asked myself this question: what’s the right length for a novel?

I know lots of rough guidance, such as 60,000 actual words as a minimum, 80,000 for an average adult novel, anything over 100,000 is a bit long and expensive for publishers to produce.

There is also the obvious ‘rule’ that the book should be long enough to tell the story, and not one word longer. (More honoured in the breach than the observance, perhaps?).

Yet I’ve still sometimes puzzled over the difference between actual word counts given to you by a word processor, and how that would translate into the pages of a book.

Even though my writing tool of choice, the excellent Scrivener, gives you not only a word count, but a calculation of paperback pages as well, even so, the number of words per pages is adjustable, and how does it really translate into what you would hold in your hand were the darned thing ever published?

That was what I really sought: an idea of what an actual word count feels like when it’s printed. So what I needed was the actual word count of some novels on my bookshelf.

Simplicity itself, in this age of ebooks. So here are the results:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: 58,845 actual words (including title and byline, but none of the copyright information, or other preamble stuff) – 303 pages paperback. This novel has quite large print and lots of white space on the page.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (or Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s Stone to those of you in the USA): roughly 79,500. Actual word count in 79,716, but this is text cut and pasted from a PDF into a word processor. Doing this has caught chapter titles on every page and page numbers too, so it’s not precise. I’m too lazy to clean it up. Precision isn’t called for here). This translates to 223 pages in my paperback edition.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – roughly 203,500 actual words (same issues as above), which translates to a weighty 607 pages in hardback.

Complicity by Iain Banks: comes out at 99,207 but there’s quite a lot of cruft caught up in this, such as page numbers and random data that shouldn’t be there, so estimate it at 98,500. This translates to a novel of 313 pages in paperback.

And we’ll finish with the most ‘important’ and enduring novel of the 20th century (discuss):

1984 by George Orwell: 110,581 in an ebook version, which again has excessive amounts of cruft, but this equates to roughly 110,000. This translates to 400 pages in the Penguin Modern Classics version. There is, however, a more compact paperback version of 292 pages.

I could keep doing this all day, but you get the general idea. If you want to do this for yourself, you can get page counts for any title just by doing a search on Amazon.

There were a few surprises among other ebooks I checked. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is only 30,000 words. The Dickens classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ is under 29,000, and ‘The War of the Worlds’ by HG Wells is only around 61,500.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, however, weighs in at only just shy of 200,000 actual words (672 pages in paperback, according to Amazon). I haven’t read The Corrections, and it was on my reading list, until I carried out this process, and scanned the prose. Why is it so highly regarded? I reckon a tough edit would get it down under 80,000, and might even make it worth reading.

As always, quality beats quantity every time.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Ferie Toscana March 4, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Is there really an answer for that? Some of Dostojevskis novels are probably around 300.000 words. But Hemingways The Old Man And The Sea is very short – no more than 50.000, I think. All of them are masterpieces. The only real rule is the one, you mention – that a novel should be long enough to tell the story.

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Noghar November 27, 2011 at 6:42 pm

As I recall Dostoyevsky was starving, and getting paid by the word. It probably put a different slant on wordcount vs brevity for him.

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Jim February 7, 2013 at 5:48 am

I just did a word count of The Old Man and the Sea and it was about 13,000 words.

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Nanna March 15, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Has there ever been any rules for that? I mean – there´s a reason, that a writer is also called an artist – and there´s no rules for art.

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Simon October 8, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Given the huge scope of The Corrections, I’m impressed Franzen was able to tell the story in only 200,000 words.

I enjoy long books. The idea that lengthy stories with real depth should be hacked down to an arbitrary length of 80,000 just to make them ‘worth reading’ makes me cringe.

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Spraygrounds November 19, 2011 at 8:05 am

I think novel express the feeling of a novelist so it shouldn’t be count in words….

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artificial flower bridal bouquets December 9, 2011 at 12:07 pm

this would solely depend upon the novelist and the type of the novel…..

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Heather July 4, 2012 at 1:51 pm

On the issue of brevity, in my reading experience there is a tendency that the more successful an author becomes the flabbier their writing becomes. Word count has no relation to quality. It is depressing to pick up (with considerable effort) the latest work of a favourite author and find it lacks the finely honed and spare writing style that was part of their attraction in the first novels.

There are obviously exceptions to this rule.

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carla July 13, 2012 at 8:02 am

I found this really helpful, thanks!!

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Mary L. Ball September 19, 2012 at 2:17 pm

This is still a broad subject. I don’t know if there is an answer. The only thing to do is go by the publishers guidelines.

Mary L. Ball-author
“Escape to Big Fork Lake”

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S B Hadley Wilson November 5, 2012 at 7:55 am

According to Wikipedia, a novel has a minimum of 40,000 words. The Old Man and the Sea has 26,601 and is considered a novella (17,500 – 40,000 words). The sweet spot for a novel is usually between 50,000 – 100,000 words.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_count

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simon November 5, 2012 at 8:02 am

Thanks SB – although that’s quite a big sweet spot…

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Julia Guo November 7, 2012 at 11:10 am

My most favourite book for the quality of writing is Marguerite Duras’ novel, Yann Andreas Steiner. I have no idea how many words it contains. It is very short and very poetic. And I would love to know the actual amount. J

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Jo Ann Carroll July 30, 2013 at 11:43 pm

I am interested in all aspects of producing a novel.

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Ian April 10, 2014 at 8:12 pm

I’m interested in your use of the word “cruft” which I had never before heard. It seems to be related to excess code in a computer program. Forgive my curiosity, but is this your professional background, or has the word escaped into the wild now?

And thanks for the info about word length. I googled to settle an argument with someone who said A Tale of Two Cities was Dickens’ shortest novel. I wanted support for my argument that A Christmas Carol is a novel, and is written by Dickens, rather than someone else of the same name.

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Simon April 23, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Ian, as far as I’m aware, ‘Cruft’ is indeed out in the wild. I have no experience with computer code. As for ‘A Christmas Carol’, I’ve never heard of a controversy around who wrote it. I’m surprised there could be one, to be honest, as it seems typical Charles Dickens to me. It might not count as a novel, of course, because of the length. Some would class it as a novella.

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