Explaining Word Counts

With NaNoWriMo coming up, you’re probably seeing word counts being thrown around. The creators of the challenge set up 50,000 words as the goal for the month of November, but what does that actually look like? Here are some books you may know, and their associated word counts.

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (65,105 words)
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (65,752 words)
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (76,944 words)
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (99,750)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (100,388 words)
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (100,609 words)
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (144,000 words)
  • A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (298,000 words)
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (561,996 words)

Considering word counts in the context of familiar books can give you a feel for how complex stories need to be to cover so many pages. 50k words seems trivial compared to A Game of Thrones, but Martin is known for having roughly a billion subplots and is not known for his brevity.

So if 50k words is a novel, how can it be compared to a work like Atlas Shrugged that has more than eleven times that many words? The answer: Atlas Shrugged isn’t actually a traditional novel, technically it can be classed as an extreme example of a work of epic fiction. Here are some general breakdowns of what word counts mean as far as the classification goes (in rough estimates that vary according to just about everyone, this is the classification I personally use).

  • Flash fiction is anything under 1k words
  • Short stories are between 2k and 10k words
  • Novelettes are between 15k and 25k words
  • Novellas are between 30k and 45k words
  • Novels are anywhere between 50k and 100k words (ranges can further be divided by genre)
  • Epics are anything over 110k words

The main consideration for word counts is your reader rather than you as an author. Readers expect a certain amount of content from their favorite genres, and can chafe under your story if it’s too long or too short compared to their expectations. This consideration also needs to be made if you want your work to go through the traditional publishing process. My advice is to pick a genre and then do some research into books that fit in the genre to see what kinds of word counts there are for popular books. Just take note that established authors can pretty much do whatever they want with their word counts, and that they aren’t necessarily the norm.

In the context of Preptober and NaNoWriMo, I think that 50k words is a great place to start, especially for those who are new at writing longer form fiction (or non-fiction if that’s your thing). By writing for a specific word count goal, you’ll get a feel for what 50k words actually means regarding time to write, plot progression and speed, and how much time you spend ramping up and ramping down your story in the introduction and conclusion. For example, a novel has a decent amount of space for some solid introduction and conclusion writing. Flash fiction, on the other hand, has approximately zero space for those segues. Keeping word counts in mind can and will elevate your writing by keeping you aware of how fast, or slow, your story needs to be.

What do you think? What are the word counts for some of your favorite books? Who else is doing NaNoWriMo 2021? Let me know in the comments!


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