What does word count mean to your story? Word count is a topic that comes up regularly in conversation amongst my writer friends, and everywhere I look, I see writers worrying about their word counts and what implications word count has for their story and its marketability. In terms of getting work published, word count is an important factor that new writers don’t often worry about. When you’re just starting out, the most important part of writing seems to be simply telling a great story, in as many words as needed, but if you spend any amount of time in publishing, you’ll soon learn that word count is pretty much everything when it comes to an editor’s decision to put something in print. Whether or not you find writers banging on about massive word counts or the cut off point between “novels” and “novellas” to be superficial or “missing the point” of what being a writer is about, word count is something that anyone serious about publishing their work should get into a habit of thinking about.
Learn to count your words!
On Dark Edifice’s website, I clearly define the word count ranges that I accept for publication. Unfortunately, I always receive one or two pieces each month that just happen to fall outside of these ranges. If I find a piece in my inbox with a word count above 4000, I delete it without reading it and send a rejection to the author stating that they didn’t follow my guidelines. Regrettably, some of these pieces are probably excellent stories. They all probably deserve to be read, and I’m sure that if they were submitted elsewhere, they’d be printed. That’s the problem, though – they’ve submitted their pieces to the wrong place.
My publication is but a small ebook outfit edited by a team of three people. Copyediting and doing page layout for 15 or so short pieces is time-consuming enough for such a small team. I simply don’t have the capacity to run pieces of a greater length, and my word count guidelines exist to let my contributors know what I can reasonably expect to edit and print before release day. Commercial publishing houses do it too, because printing a book costs money, and the length of a book is largely what determines how much printing will cost. If you want to publish your story somewhere, and you want someone else to do it for you (as opposed to publishing it yourself – an avenue where things like word count are used as an indicator to determine how much a reader will pay for your book), you have to pay attention to your word count, because editors will likely reject you if you fall outside their accepted word lengths.
- Flash Fiction is any piece that falls between 1 and 1000 words. Some magazines will only publish flash – which means that you shouldn’t send them anything longer than 1000 words.
- A Short Story is generally accepted as being between 1000 and 7500 words in length.
- Novelettes are between 7500 and 15,000 words long.
- A Novella falls between 15,000 and 40,000 words in length. Generally, a novella length piece is considered too short to be published on its own by a print based publisher, though longer novellas do sometimes get published either on their own (very rarely) or with other novellas in print (more likely) and this word length is usually ideal for ebooks and pitching a novella to an electronic publisher is a great avenue for publication.
- The bare minimum length for a Novel is 40,000 words, though this is where things get tricky. Although novels as short as 40,000 words do occasionally see publication (Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, with a length of 42,000 words, is an oft-cited example, and my own Sun Bleached Winter was accepted by Damnation Books at 45,000) this minimum can even vary based on genre: while 40,000 to 60,000 words is the typically accepted minimum length for general fiction or literary novels, most speculative fiction novels are at least 80,000 words in length, with some fantasy novels typically exceeding 100,000 words.
That said, my personal creed is to not worry about it too much. While keeping your piece’s word count in mind is always a good idea, there are many more roads to publication these days than there were in the past, so there’s generally an option to suit any particular length. Some stories just don’t take well to being artificially lengthened to meet a minimum word count, and some stories are too complex to simply be trimmed down. As a writer, you should feel free to take as many or as few words as you need to tell your story, until you feel satisfied that you’ve done it justice. You don’t have to strive to meet a word count; just know what general length you’re falling into, and cater your submissions to the publishers that are best for you.