The Length of Stories

I see many people seeking guidance on how long their novels and stories should be. Having compiled lists of publishers of short and long fantasy fiction I’ve noticed a few trends.

This article looks at the lengths publishers seek for fiction in their various forms: micro, flash, short, novelettes, novellas, and novels. But it begins with a few words of caution.

Forget word counts

A controversial start. Let me explain.

“A story is as long as it needs to be.”

This was the best bit of advice I received when querying how long my novel should be. Writing the first draft of any story with a word count in mind is stifling. At that stage of the process, you require unlimited creative freedom. You want to see where your characters take you and how the plot develops. A tight word count may dissuade you from exploring these detours, which may harm your story.

Then again, some of you may find that a helpful thing, a tool to keep you focused. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Why do word counts matter at all? If you write a book 500,000 words strong, few if anyone is going to read it unless you’ve got a reputation akin to George R.R. Martin. It’s a hard sell. You’re asking someone to invest their precious time in your book, and publishers know that. So if you want to get a look-in, you need to be aware of word limits. Let’s explore further.

Micro and Flash Fiction miniature-tiny-book-collection.jpg

As the name suggests, the word limit of micro fiction is minute, around 100 words, sometimes 150 depending on the publisher. Perhaps the most famous example is Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” It’s becoming an increasingly popular medium, so it’s worth having a stab at it.

The limit for flash fiction is a bit more gracious at between 1,000 and 1,500 words, again depending on the publisher. It’s similar to micro fiction in that it’s a hard format to master, but again, it’s popular, with most stories able to be read in around five or so minutes.

Short Stories

Short stories come in a range of lengths, usually up to around 7-8,000 words, but as many as 17,500 (though as we’ll see below this strays into the realm of novelettes). Since I have a fair bit of data at my disposal from my list of short fiction publishers, I thought I’d do a bit of maths.

The average word limit using the range in the table is 7,500 words, which tends to be the limit set by most publishers.joyce.jpg

Out of the 80 on the list, 20 had limits of 10,000 words or above. The most common word count limit is 5,000. With 7,500 words being the average limit, the number of publishers below that figure is 48, which suggests the majority of publishers like their short fiction on the relatively short side. Who’d have thought it?

Novelettes and Novellas

A novelette isn’t quite a short story and isn’t quite a novel, usually lingering in the range of between 7,500 to 20,000 words. It’s for the short stories that you couldn’t stop writing. A word of warning: they can be hard to get published. Too long for a magazine, too short for a book. You may find a collection of three or four novelettes together.A_Knight_of_the_Seven_Kingdoms_cover.jpg

A novella is a bit more of a weighty tome and lies in the realm of around 20,000 to 50,000 words, sometimes as many as 70-75,000. There are many dedicated publishers of novellas, and publishers of shorter fiction sometimes open their gates to stories of novella length.

An intriguing trend I’ve noticed from my list of publishers of longer fiction is that many publishers set their minimum, usually around 10-20,000 words, and do not specify the limit. This suggests you’ve got a fair bit of freedom when it comes to novellas.

Novels

The length of novels can range from around 70,000 words up to 150,000o or even more. The limit is dependent on the publisher, genre and your own stature as a writer.

YA novels, for instance, tend to be around the 80,000-word mark. It’s recommended

Magician.jpg

 that debut authors aim for books around 100,000 word in length because, in the eyes of the publishing world, a reader will not take a chance on an unknown author with a wordy book.

The average length of fantasy novels, which my list of long fiction is based upon, seems to be around 100,000, though it’s worth noting that many publishers do not specify the limit. If a story is long but is engaging then a publisher may forgo a limit.

Raymond Feist’s The Magician is 315,085 words long. The Lord of the Rings collection is a whopping 527,040 words long. The Eye of the World, book one in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, is 261,290 words long. If a novel is good enough it will be published.

All this information may be fine and well, but what if you’re going down the self-publishing route?

Word Counts and Self-Publishing

When it comes to self-publishing your work, you are the master. You can set your own word limit if you set one at all. This is perhaps one of the best things about the self-publishing route.

While having unlimited freedoms, it’s worth keeping the industry standards in mind. The publishing industry knows the lengths readers prefer—it’s their job afterall. When it comes to your own books competing in the market, a hefty word length may dissuade potential buyers. Food for thought.


Thank you for reading. I hope you found it useful. If you’d like to read more of the same, check out my blog log. If you haven’t already found them too, I have a bunch of helpful resources for writers, like lists of publishersa free ebook on the craft of creative writing, and a list of book reviewers.

If you’d like to stay in touch, why not sign up to my mailing list? I send one newsletter a week packed with my latest blogs, news and articles I think you may find helpful, as well as any new resources I release.

11 thoughts on “The Length of Stories”

  1. I just finished writing the first draft of a 12,000 word story. That was the goal, but the first draft is about 13,600. I decided to really put as much effort into every paragraph of this story, the way I would a novel. My short stories have been written much more haphazardly than my novels, and I don’t put a lot of time or effort into rewriting them. Often I don’t even give them to beta readers. I decided to change that and write a longer story that I wouldn’t be afraid to significantly revise. My goal now is to cut it by 15%, which would bring it down to 11,500. Most pro markets won’t take it, but the upper limit for Writers of the Future is 17,000 words.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice! Sounds like a great way to experiment with the short story structure. I’m still honing my craft when it comes to shorter fiction. I might have to give a longer one a go. Have you ever written anything of novella length?

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      1. I haven’t written a novella unless you count the flashback portion of a novel I wrote a few years ago, which turned out to be self-contained. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I considered it, but decided to do something eligible for Writers of the Future.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with the idea that you should not try to force a specific word count. The one bit of advice I would add, though, is that shorter is typically better. Chances are you can take most of your stories and cut them down a bit, and they will be better for it. Efficient writing is better writing. 7500 words is a good length for short stories, which is why I think a lot of publishers used that as a cutoff. 12-15k word short stories are probably in need of some editing and cutting. Short stories are not structured like novellas. A 20k word novella should read very fast, but a short story of a similar length will drag. At least that has been my experience.

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  3. Usually, there’s a lot of unnecessary prose t omit. A book can be 500,000 words long if you feel it needs to be, but it should earn those words, not fill itself with excessive adverbs and adjectives. Typically, shorter is better for new writers to the market, until you can build a legacy. Then again, there’s always the exception when it comes to writing nowadays. Stay true to yourself, and doors will open. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You shouldn’t write to the word count at all. You should write to the story. Then when it’s dun didded, see what you end up with and THEN look at what the standards are and submit as a short story, novella, novel, or endless tome.

    I’ve seen some writer’s write to the word count and they ended up with a bunch of padding and well…’nuff said.

    Good, thought provoking article.

    Liked by 1 person

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