Posted by: kimberlysullivan | March 28, 2014

The word count conundrum

Pen writingAt some point before submitting, a writer must confront the big question out there : What kind of word count is acceptable to literary agents and publishers?

Fortunately, there’s a VERY helpful post for writers from Writer’s Digest on word count, broken down by genre.

This is something you may not have considered until the moment you start pitching. I know I was shocked when I started having agent sessions and some were telling me they like to see first author publications somewhere around 70-75,000 words. I found that so surprising since I very rarely read books that short.

While I still don’t think I have much interest in writing a 75,000-word novel, I have learned that in my genre of women’s fiction, 80,000-99,000 words appears to be the ideal length for first time authors. This is hard for me, and generally requires lots of cutting.

Sci-fi and fantasy genres are generally above that range (100,000-120,000), and young adult below (55,000-69,000).

A lot of the discussion I’ve heard centers around the costs in taking on a first-time author. Bigger books cost more money to print, and that’s an economic risk most publishers prefer not to take a for a first-time offer. Although, I have received different advice from some agents, saying that often book publishing for new authors is in digital first, where length is less of an issue, and longer stories may be considered.

And you, writers? Do you struggle with word counts? Do you think these are good guidelines for writers to keep in mind?


  1. Oh, that awful W word. As a teacher, when students have ever asked me how long something needs to be, I have always answered, “as long as it needs to be”.
    As a writer and reader, I basically feel the same way… but…. I think the guidelines are good for just that. Guidelines. I think they give us a feel for if we are being too wordy (which is me, too, Kimberly – although now one of my favorite parts of editing is seeing how many words I’ve cut), but I also think it can be stifling.
    My first novel is a lot over the guidelines. I’ve done everything I can to reduce it – and I feel like if I can just get this other novel published, I might have a greater chance at winning over a publisher with a longer one as my second one. Maybe? Or not. Haha.
    If nothing else though, even if I might disagree with the word count guidelines, I’ve learned and accepted that at minimum, a novelist looking to make her debut can’t avoid the realities of it.

    • Great points, Janet. And you raised another good one. These are rules of thumb for first time authors. Of course, once authors have had success, they can write longer if they want for subsequent novels. So I like your strategy for getting your first novel out there to publish your second – longer – novel easier. Great strategic thinking! : ) I look forward to reading both…

  2. Thanks, Kimberly, for another practical post. I write long…before cutting. That’s me. Most of the writers friends I have struggle with cutting as well.
    But it matters since most editors (at least for children literature) want short more than long. Better follow the guidelines if we want to get a shot at getting their attention.

  3. […] (here) to read the full […]

  4. Hi🙂

    I really enjoyed this post. I agree word counts guidelines can be tricky at times. I struggled a lot when first writing, wondering about them. On a site I work for we have a segment called “Feature Friday.” I thought your article was a great addition. We share articles we find helpful, enjoy, etc with the writing community and they are directed right to your post to read more🙂 Thank you for writing this piece!

    Here is the link:

    • Thanks so much for reblogging. I look forward to exploring your site. Yes, I agree it can be tricky – I struggle, too, with word counts. Thanks again!

      • No problem🙂 Have a wonderful day!

  5. Your post reminds me of this article that gives the wordcounts of major works and classifies them according to wordcount. Animal Farm is only about 30K.

    I know some authors who insist that wordcount isn’t important, but as you mention, it is when you try to get an agent interested in taking a look at your work. I’m still not sure what I should aim for with my nonfic Viet Nam book, but I’m sure I’ll end up either madly cutting or madly scrambling to write more essays.

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