How many words do I need?

When I first started on this journey, it never really occurred to me to wonder how long my book should be. As a school librarian I had a clear understanding of the difference between a lower middle grade (MG) and upper MG book, but still no real concept of chapter length or word count or the ideal length publishers and MG readers may expect.

It wasn’t until I took a course with the late David Farland I understood there would be limits to how long I could-and should-make my book, and many reasons why these limits exist. His insights and advice were incredibly helpful when I started plotting out my book and I would be lying if I said it didn’t heavily influence the choices I have made!

So, what secrets did he impart?

Firstly, that the genre standard matters. Not only to your potential readers, but also to a prospective agent, editor and publisher. Books far shorter or longer than the standard for your chosen genre won’t sell. Why?

  • The book shops don’t want to fill their shelves with a few chunky, thousand page tomes when multiple slimmer copies they will earn more on, could fill the same space.
  • Some readers can feel cheated by a really short book, while others may give up on or not even bother to start something far too long for their taste.

Secondly, that chapter length is down to the style of the individual author, but should still perform a function beyond breaking up your novel into more manageable bitesize pieces. Some authors like really long chapters with lots going on. Others like short snappy chapters that give you a short scene and keep the reader turning pages. What works for you may not fit the genre or style of someone else’s story.

But Dave’s best advice was to do your own research and see what others are doing in your chosen genre. So, I found myself picking up and studying some of the MG books my kids favour and others I know well from the school library that are checked out over and over again. I looked at the amount of chapters they had, the average length of a chapter and how many words the books had in total. This helped me see some trends I could use to plot out my novel and so far, I’m sticking to them.

What does that mean for me?

  • Upper MG books have an average word length of between 80 000 and 100 000 words or 300 to 400 pages.
  • Chapter lengths vary from author to author, but most of the ones I’ve looked at are between 3000 and 5000 words or 12 to 20 pages.
  • First books in a trilogy or series are often shorter than their sequels.

So if I wanted to write an 80 000 word upper MG novel – first in series – with an average of 4000 words per chapter… I’d end up with 20 chapters of around 16 pages and a 320 page book!

Now, this isn’t a must, nor is it a recommendation – it’s just a short and slightly nerdy way to approach plotting out the length your books! Don’t you just love math??

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