Word count—why the length of your novel matters

In today’s post I’m going to argue in favor of a shorter word count for both chapters and overall novel length.

First of all, I would encourage writers to familiarize themselves with the average word count for novels in their genre. If you’re thinking about submitting your novel to a particular publisher, you might even be able to find specific guidelines for that particular publisher online (e.g. Harlequin’s website is very explicit on what the word count should be depending on the genre of your novel).

At this point, you might argue that many successful series feature novels much longer than the average length (e.g. Harry Potter or Glass of Throne). While a longer novel doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t sell, you should be aware that longer books tend to be sequels. The first Harry Potter and Glass of Thrones books are on the upper spectrum, yet stayed under the 100k mark, which is considered acceptable as the upper limit in YA Fantasy.

Publishing houses are inclined to give preference to shorter novels, which take up less shelf space and thus allow for more novels to be displayed and subsequently sold.

But even if you plan to self-publish, you should strive to keep your novel tight and at the expected length of your genre. Why? Because of your reader. It is safe to assume that your reader is a busy individual, who has other hobbies and interests besides books. Given a choice between a 300 page, concise book that jumps straight into the story, or a 500 page book with lengthy descriptions and subplots that distract from the main story, which one do you think most readers will choose?

Personally, I would choose the former one. Most books that go over the suggested word count do so, for the following reasons.

Excessive backstory

You want to jump straight into the main story/adventure. For backstory, always ask yourself whether it’s necessary for the reader to know to understand the novel. If the answer is yes, work it in smoothly via internal monologue and dialogue.

Overly descriptive

Yes, you’ll need some to give the reader a sense of time and place, but the reader doesn’t need to know every last detail, especially if the location is generic and only used for one brief scene.

Lengthy and/or circular internal monologues

While it is important to provide a glimpse into the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts, don’t beat the reader to death with it. Also internal monologues should only be used when something important happens that moves the protagonist, not constantly.

Pointless dialogue

Dialogue in novels should never be idle chitchat. Each word and each gesture in dialogue should have a reason behind it and justification for its existence. Dialogue is action-reaction, like a good game of tennis. It should convey motivation, personality of the characters, background information and move the story forward.

Ending chapters too late

Most books don’t end too late, since authors are aware that after the climax the resolution and thus the ending follow. However, it is not uncommon to find books where instead of ending the chapter on a new revelation/question/cliffhanger, the author goes on and on, with pointless dialogue or internal monologue.

Dragging endings do not only add to your overall word count, they might even cost you your reader. Think about it, have you ever put a novel aside, because the chapter dragged on, without anything significant happening? I have. Novels on the other hand with quick chapters that have snappy endings, make me always turn the page and I end up reading more than I planned to.

To summarize, whether you plan on the traditional route or self-publish, keep your novel within the expected genre length. If you struggle with a hefty word-count, ensure that your novel starts by jumping straight into the story, your chapter endings are snappy and your dialogue, internal monologue and descriptions are justified.

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