Originally, I had a versus in place of and, but, since this post is going to break down why both are important, I didn’t really want to pit them against one another. Because though I’m always going to agree that quality is more important than quantity, well. Word count matters, in the end.
A lot of the time, when you tell someone you’ve finished a book, they ask how many pages it is. Given that the page count between a Word document, or whatever you write on, and an actually published book can differ widely, this is honestly a really hard question to answer. I’ve gotten in the habit of saying what published book mine is close enough in word count to, though you’ve got to pick a popular enough one that people understand the connection. Because, no matter how good your book is, the word count means a lot.
I’m not going to link a specific place, since there really isn’t one catch-all, but if you just Google something along the lines of “word counts for genres”, you’ll come up with basically the same information across the board. For me, writing in adult fantasy, my word count is generally around 100-120k, and though YA was, for a long time, a full 20k below the lower end, coming in at around the same length as romance, we’ve seen that evolve in big ways in recent years. Middle grade is usually 40-50k, historical fiction tends higher, and the pattern is usually that older ages get more words, which is just dumb, honestly, but we’re slowly changing that, and I’m happy for that change.
And yes, no matter what, it is vital that your quality is top notch. Every person in the writing world is going to advocate for quality first, but quantity is important, and if you’re trying to pitch a 90k middle grade, it’s just not going to happen. And sure, there are plenty of YAs out there that fit the word count, but the quality leaves a lot to be desired, but those same YAs aren’t sweeping 200k epics on top of poor quality because it just doesn’t happen.
I’m also going to keep advocating for these genre word count markers. I think they make sense. I don’t want to see every YA book suddenly become a sweeping 200k epic because realistically? I would not have picked that up as a teenager. I would have seen that it looked like a freaking brick that I could wield as a woman, and I would have gone for something different based purely on its size. The same for middle grade–in primary school, you’re just starting to read, and something longer than the standard 40-50k is going to be really daunting. And I’m not saying that we suddenly fall in love with 100k word books when we become adults because, trust me, there are plenty of tomes that I avoid because of their length. But try to imagine a high fantasy over and done with in 80k words.
Kind of sounds miserable, doesn’t it? Things like fantasy and science fiction take time to build, and that time comes in the form of words. I understand why contemporaries are at a shorter word count than fantasies because you’ve already got the world building done for you. With fantasy–and particularly high as opposed to urban, which has already got some of the world building done, as well–you’re literally building from the ground up. It’s not just characters and plot, but an entire world, cultures to go with that, religions and mythology if that’s your vibe, races if you want, and so many other things. Fantasy needs a higher word count because it has more of a foundation to build. The second you leave Earth, or even just thread magic into your story, you need more space to unfold those fantastical elements and tie them into the things that are already, inherently, there.
There’s a difference, though, in the beginning, and while you do need to keep word count in mind, it should not be the thing you’re stressing out about the most in the beginning. If you open your brand new Word doc, ready to get cracking on a novel, and all you can think about is okay I need 120k, then you’re going to focus on inputting as many words as possible, many of them unnecessary because you’re focusing so much on the quantity of words rather than the quality of them. At the beginning, it’s not about how many, but what kind.
At some point, you’re going to get used to it, too. When I first started writing, I didn’t care about word count at all. I hadn’t yet realized that there’s a specific word count you should be shooting for based on your genre, so that was mostly why, but I was more focused on the kind of words I was writing, and that, above all else, should come before your quantity in the beginning. You want to write a good novel, right? So you’ve got to practice the art of that first.
My first ever high fantasy book was 60k words. I have to pause a little just thinking about that because wow. It was so fast. There was no exposition, no description, no world building at all. We just dove straight into the action and careened through. I rewrote that book several times, and though it eventually grew in length to be 80k, that’s still way too small. If I ever went back to it (I won’t), I’d definitely be shooting for, minimum, 120k and maybe even a little above. It’s funny, too, because the publishing world used to be so strict about word counts that even thinking you might push above the higher cap of a genre was unheard of, but YA has really been a game changer in the last few years, and we’re seeing higher and higher word counts, which I am all for.
But, eventually, you’re going to start thinking about word count because you’re going to want to get this book you’ve worked so hard on published. After you’ve honed your craft, and you’ve practiced and learned how to write well, it comes time for things like query letters, which are a whole other level of scary on their own. And now that you’re looking into publishing, you’re realizing oh. There’s something to this.
When I write now, I both never think about word count and think about it a lot. I know that sounds impossible, but hear me out. I’ve written a lot of books, many that will never see the light of day, and though I thought they would be published someday at the time of writing, as I’ve gotten older and written more, I can see how lacking those stories were, and I’m more excited about the craft I’ve honed now, the quality of words that I’m proud of now. And so, my focus is about quantity these days.
My books are usually broken into three acts, which is pretty common, and they’ll fall around 40k for each act. The first one is usually the longest as everything gets set up, the second about the same length, if a little smaller, and the third usually the smallest of them all because, generally, I’m writing at least a duology, and there’s going to be a cliffhanger because that’s my MO, and so, my third act is usually cut in half because of the cliffhanger. If I was writing a standalone, three would likely become four with a very small fourth act to just tie things together, and the same applies to sequels. Trilogies are different, too. My cliffhanger is usually going to come in the second book, which is also pretty common, so the first book will have similar-sized acts, the second one will get into that small third act, so the first two will have to compensate, and the third one will have four acts with three similar ones and a smaller fourth one. Honestly, look at any book on your shelf, and they’ve got a similar structure. It’s a tale as old as time.
I don’t go into my first act thinking this has got to be 40k words, though, because now that I’ve figured out my quality, I’ve spent enough time working on what the quantity should look like, and both, now, happen naturally. My first act is 40k not because I’m paying attention–I am, but not in a way that’s going to effect the writing, just keeping track to make sure I’m not straying too much–but because my writing brain understands what 40k looks like both in terms of quality (of words, sim, but also just of story) and quantity. I know exactly the shape of an act in terms of quality and quantity because, after years and years of this nonsense, I’ve worked on both enough to understand what they are.
Quality is vital. I’ll never disagree with that. Quantity, too, once you’ve got the hang of quality, is also vital. If you’ve got a beautifully written young adult contemporary coming in at 130k, well. That’s just not going to work, and not even just because publishing says so. A lot needs to happen in those 130k words, and unless you’re bumping your ages up to fit an adult setting, teenagers aren’t reading it. Of course, there are exceptions. Red, White & Royal Blue is 125k (estimated), which works for its adult setting, though it’s on the high end, and I know teenagers that have read it, but if Alex & Henry had also been teenagers, I guarantee it would be shorter. Publishing is malleable, too, and it is changing, albeit slowly, but I do think a lot of the word counts in place make sense.
This was long and rambling, and I’m not sure that I actually got my point across, which is that, truthfully, it takes years to do this thing we love because quality is a thing of practice, and quantity comes after, which takes more time to practice, but, ultimately, both are important, and both should be considered.