What Did You Learn?

March 2, 2011

General Writing: How Long Should Your Manuscript Be?

This isn’t a question that can really be answered in a short, concise answer, as much as you would like that. For one thing, there are varying opinions on the matter, and for another, you will often get the answer “write as much as you need to tell your story.” Plus, each genre has varying standard lengths. But there are some things to consider.

The downside to very long books:

  • At least until publishing becomes completely digital, longer books cost more money to print. This also means the book will have to be sold for a higher price to compensate, which ultimately means you will be losing your audience to other, shorter, less expensive books.
  • Longer books also require more time and effort to prepare.
  • A bigger book takes up more space on the shelves and so bookstores are likely to stock less of them (unless you are already a well known writer–note, this is why series tend to get longer from one book to the next)
  • Oftentimes (particularly with first time authors), a long book can signify that a writer does not know how to edit themselves and their story. They include every little detail. In memoirs especially, they say “but it really happened!” Publishing Houses don’t want to have to sift through your work to find the good parts and when the book gets too long, often the bad outweighs the good.

The downside to very short books:

  • If a book is too short, a publisher might think there simply isn’t enough substance for a full story (this isn’t always true, there are novellas obviously, but when it is intended to be a novel not a novella…)
  • A much shorter book will require a lower price tag so that people will feel they are not being overcharged and this will mean a comparatively smaller profit for the publishing house.

Now that I have explained some of what the publishers are thinking, for the length suggestions themselves:

Standard fiction
Typically ranging from 70,000-90,000 (some publishers will occasionally allow for as short as 50,000 and as long as 110,000)

Same as fiction, 70,000-90,000 (a memoir is not meant to give a play by play of your entire life it should be focused on a particular journey, in many ways, a memoir is essentially a true novel)

Science Fiction and Fantasy
Typically ranging from 85,000-125,000 (the word length is more flexible here because you have to take time to actual build an entire world with new rules instead of the ones that we already know and are familiar with–note that if you write a story set in today’s world with some added elements, it should be shorter than if you create an entirely different reality)

Middle Grade
Typically 30,000-45,000 words

Young Adult
Typically 40,000-80,000 words (the sci-fi/fantasy ones are on the longer side while general fiction is shorter)

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but this is the standard. Make sure to check the guidelines for places you are submitting to in order to be sure.


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