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Manuscript Length

ChristaCarol asked this question a bit ago and I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since it really is on people’s minds. I almost hesitate to get into this discussion publicly but, well, that’s never stopped me before. :)

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts. I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully-chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside. It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there. I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic. Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. :)

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some maximum word counts for different types of projects.

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picturebook — 300 words max
  • Picturebook — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapterbook — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. (Disclosure: Early Readers and Chapterbooks are not my personal forte.) If a manuscript goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “Tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut! And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

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  1. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Great advice. I’ve seen so many fantasy novels that are 100k+ in word length. I struggle with that as a reader. I mean, sure, they have to create an entirely different universe in some cases, that takes description, but, I do struggle with reading really long books, and usually end up skimming some of the descriptive (narrative) parts. :-)

    Nice post. I like the information you gave.

    Have a nice weekend.

  2. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    Mary, you rock for answering this question with so much detail. I’ve now already got my count down to 85K since sending the question, and still going. Phew, I’m not sure if revision is a process one can ever stop until it’s finally out of your hands (the original draft was 110K!). I have a feeling though that I can get this down to 80K, which I’m gonna say I’m proud to do seeing as this is not necessarily high fantasy, but adventure fantasy, so yay me! -toots horn-

    You are full of wisdom. I hope many others send questions your way to ‘learn’ all us soon-to-be debut authors. ;-) Thanks again!

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Lynn — Thanks for your kind words! It really is a slog sometimes with the longer, more dense projects. I mean, fantasy and sci-fi and paranormal readers read to get lost in a fleshed-out world, but there has to be attention paid to pacing. It’s a tough balance.

    ChristaCarol — Good for you! And so sorry for misspelling your name (without the “h”), I’ve gone ahead and changed it.

  4. Karen Amanda Hooper’s avatar

    Great advice. I have to admit I was guilty of the long word count on my first (and second draft). 150k EEK! After I hacked and slacked it down to 80k, the story was MUCH cleaner, tighter, and fast-paced. I heart word count limits for that very reason.

  5. Charisse Drain’s avatar

    Thanks for the list, Mary. I’ve visited many writing websites and it amazes me how much the lengths of manuscript submissions vary. I’ve seen picturebook publishers who accept fiction manuscripts of 1,000 words or more.

    As a prospective author, whenever the urge to get carried away with my manuscript hits, I have to remember my audience. Would a child continue reading this on his/her own? Would it be boring if read aloud? I’ve browsed through picturebooks with the most beautiful illustrations and the wordiest text!

    Anyhoo, this was another great post and I’m copying the list right now! Thanks again!

  6. Bane’s avatar

    My left brain is so thrilled that you quantified this. Word count is my biggest concern w/ my most recent MG, which is in that shady tween category (13-year-old MC)… and, as you’ve referenced, 67 k is pretty high (though cut down from the original 76k).

  7. Jennifer’s avatar

    Mary,
    This is SO helpful. THANKS! We were actually just discussing this in my critique group last week. I think we writers sometimes obssess about how many words we should have vs how many should actually be there. Great job pointing that out. And while I do know that there are exceptions to every rule, it is nice to at least have some suggested guidelines. Makes me feel good about my 31k MG.

  8. Susan Quinn’s avatar

    Fantastic post, and oh so timely!

    I’m one of those in-betweeners as well – Upper MG, lower YA. Does that mean I get an extension on that “hard” limit of 45k for MG?

    I’m still cutting, revising, editing with a beady eye on that word count, but it’s still hovering at 55k.

    Do you think that’s in auto-reject territory?

  9. Elizabeth  Prats’s avatar

    This is definitely informative. I had to email a friend in my critique group about it. He’s currently struggling with cutting down his 150k YA urban fantasy. I know that when it comes to YA no matter how much you love the book-if you find yourself skimming descriptions the book could probably do without them. Most teenagers I know find a shorter book wayyyy more attractive than a longer book.

  10. Rose Moriarty’s avatar

    Hi Mary! Thanks for this great post! Do you mind if I re-print a portion of this in my blog next week? Thanks so much!

  11. Christina’s avatar

    Very helpful post Mary. I like how you went into the details but then broke it down to general word counts per genre. I thought it was interesting how you had some genres had different lengths even within the age ranges.

  12. Shelley Moore Thomas’s avatar

    Great post. How would you define the genre of chapterbook? Is it like a Junie B Jones/Captain Underpants/Geronimo Stilton kind of thing?

    (I totally get your point about revising and editing a longer piece….slog, slog, slog…)

    shelley

  13. Karen Collum’s avatar

    Awesome post. Thank you. And for the record, I’m downgrading my submission to a Chapterbook (even though I’m sad they’re not your forte) LOL

  14. Anita’s avatar

    What would you say is the minimum words for YA sci fi?

  15. Mary’s avatar

    Susan — No, it’s not auto-reject territory. There are definitely gray areas.

    Rose — Sure! As long as you credit me and link back to this site.

    Shelley — Yes, those are great examples of chapterbooks. Anything where the text is long enough to be broken up into chapters. Judy Moody and Ivy + Bean also come to mind.

    Anita — 50,000 words is a pretty standard number for the average YA novel. Sci-fi does tend to run longer but there are no hard and fast rules.

  16. Natalie Aguirre’s avatar

    Thanks for your very helpful and timely post. I’m just finishing my latest revision of my fantasy novel and already knew I was was going to have to make cuts in the word count at 88,000 words. I was hoping to get down to 84,000. Now I’m thinking I’ll need to cut more.

  17. Patricia Puddle’s avatar

    That’s great! Thank you. What a great post, Mary. I’ve copied and pasted the list with a link to your blog and filed it in my documents. I’ve already linked your blog to mine so I can just click on your updates.

    It’s great to have a guideline close by.

  18. JTuttle’s avatar

    Thanks for the great post. It is all great information and gives me more of an idea of around what one should shoot for in word counts in different genres. Very useful!

  19. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    This was very helpful, Mary. This is the most comprehensive explanation on word count for different types of manuscripts that I’ve ever come across. I like that there’s a comment about minimum word count for YA. What about the accepted minimum on middle-grade books? Thanks.

  20. Ashley Cooper’s avatar

    As always, such a help! I am wondering – because I’m new at this – what age range constitutes an “early” picturebook as opposed to a regular picturebook?

  21. Crystal Roget’s avatar

    Thanks SO MUCH, Mary, for your perspective on this topic. It’s VERY HELPFUL and will be passed along! :)

  22. Krist’s avatar

    Mary – I just found this post and wanted to thank you for your input on this topic. My YA is 55K – even after revisions – and I was worried that it was too short. Although I noticed that Lisa McMann’s Wake is around 36K, it seems that many published YA’s are in the 80K range so I’m encouraged by your feedback. I still have a few revisions to go and will wait until after the holidays to query – after reading your other post – but I hope to query you in Feb. Happy Thanksgiving!

  23. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Excellent post and informative post, Mary. Word lengths appear to be a bit looser here in Australia – I’ve seen books for 9-13 year olds (these books would require very good reading skills, I guess) up to 60,000 words, depending on the publisher.
    Thanks for your blog!

  24. megan’s avatar

    I’ve always wondered about this, but worried the other way, if my manuscripts were too short. I cut my last one from 50,000 + down to @ 43,000. I thought this would be way too short for YA, but then a friend of mine with about the same word length got a publishing deal.

    Thanks for the info. Much appreciated.

  25. Caitlin’s avatar

    This is where I start to stress out. When I finally finished composing my first manuscript, it weighed in at a hefty 180,000. Done laughing? I went back through every word, correcting and deleting until it was down to 150,000. Then I did it again, this time taking it down to 130,000. Now hovering above 100,000, I’m finding it very difficult to cut much more without seriously affecting the story.

    I was quite sure it was adult mainstream fiction. Not so, according to agents I queried. With a main character on the verge of turning twenty, it’s apparently YA. Who knew? The themes are rather adult; sexuality, mortality, infidelity, suicide and depression. In short, I wouldn’t recommend it to high school students.

    My conclusion? I may never be published, at least not with this novel, but I darn sure had fun writing it.

  26. Jean Airey’s avatar

    Thank you so much for pointing out the importance of physical pages in the physical book printing world. So many people today rely on the word count given by their software program, but when you go to print a physical book, the pages matter. That’s why the traditional submission formats exist. If I tell you that my book is 70,000 words, and send you an 800 page correctly formated ms (the 1″ margins, Roman 12, etc.), there’s going to be a long moment of disbelief. For people looking at having to “cut” the word count, if you’re in the physical printing world, look at the pages you have in the “traditional” format criteria and multiply them by 250. That’s your word count. Sometimes you can “cut” 250 words by a judicious edit of a couple of paragraphs to “lose” a page. All IMHO, of course.

  27. Erin Turner’s avatar

    i was just wondering if any of you guys have a first hand experience about Paranormal in real life.,*;

  28. Johanan Raatz’s avatar

    Mary, I have a peculiar problem, and I was wondering if you had any advice on this. I have a first book which is 167,000 words long and unfortunately for many people is WAY over the auto-reject limit.

    Some people have suggested I cut it down a bit, but due to the nature of the book that isn’t feasible. Despite being long, the plot is tightly wound together and there aren’t very many “down spots” to edit out. To get an idea, some of my friends have told me that the book has a “24ish” style atmosphere. (though it’s scifi/fantasy rather than normal action adventure)
    If I start to edit out stuff the plot quickly becomes unraveled and the story line is essentially ruined.

    Many people who have read it tell me that they think it’s definitely good enough to publish, but with the length it’s hard to get anyone to look at it. (though fortunately some agents don’t ask for word count right away) So I’m in a bit of a bind here. What do I do?

  29. Mary’s avatar

    Jonathan — A lot of people convince themselves that they have this “peculiar” problem of a really long manuscript that just CAN’T be edited down. You’re free, of course, to query it around. If it happens to be rejected (I’m guessing the length will play into that decision), you have two choices: finally cut it down, or write a new book. Lots of people, like your beta readers, read and like lots of things. But 99% of what comes into my inbox isn’t ready for publication. Publishing professionals know a little more about what’s publishable and what isn’t than the average reader. If the professionals say it isn’t ready, you have to decide what you can do to GET it ready.

  30. Johanan Raatz’s avatar

    Well I was thinking of sort of forcing stuff out as well. However it seems unusually long. I might be able to squeeze off 15k words or so, but beyond that it would probably start seriously shredding the plot itself up. I don’t know I’ll see what I can do.

  31. James Garcia’s avatar

    paranormal stuffs are usually for those persons who are very very supersitious.~:.

  32. Isla Watson’s avatar

    i like to hear paranormal stuffs because it stirs my excitement and imagination-:,

  33. Angie Azur’s avatar

    Big Sur was amazing – Thank you for your query critique. I have found my scissors. I am cutting, carving and slashing my babies to pieces. Loving it more with every slice.

    Thank you!!

  34. David Justiss’s avatar

    My response to this issue is here:
    https://lightingliramor.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/too-long/
    I looked up a bunch of my favorite middle grade books and only two out of thirteen were within the 25K to 45K range.
    (I got the 25K to 45K range here: http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/Word+Count+For+Novels+And+Childrens+Books+The+Definitive+Post.aspx)

  35. David Justiss’s avatar

    Sorry, to follow that 2nd link, you’ll have to copy & paste it without the final parenthesis. clicking on it doesn’t work.

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