Optimal Word Count for a Novel Manuscript

by Dax MacGregor
Whether you hope to get published the traditional way or plan to self-publish, the word count of your completed work is important. Here's the scoop.

Writing a novel is an incredible investment of time. The reward for that investment for others to read and enjoy the fruits of all that labor. For me, having a small group of friends and family read it isn’t what I’m pursuing. I hope to reach a lot of readers. That means getting published.

If you have hopes of getting published the traditional way, you’ll need to make sure your manuscript gets past the initial screening. Submissions get rejected for many reasons, including being too big or too small. A common malady for new writers is producing bloated manuscripts. So agents and publishers will often rejected manuscripts from unpublished authors that exceed their personal word count tolerance, without even perusing the submission.

How many words should your finished manuscript have?

Many agents insist that manuscripts by debut authors not exceed 100,000 words. There is solid logic to that. Larger manuscripts cost more to proof and edit and are more expensive to print, creating a bigger risk.

Is is common for the word count of books in a series to grow in length after the debut novel. The first Harry Potter book had 76,944 words. By the fifth book in the series, the word count had grown to 257,000 words. J.R.R. Tolkien’s initial novel, The Hobbit, contained 95,022 words. The Fellowship of the Ring grew to 177,227.

There isn’t any hard, fast rule. Word count recommendations vary by genre and by writing expert. I’ve assembled the numbers below by synthesizing numerous opinions. The best articles on the subject are listed at end of this article.

  • Young adult fiction: 50,000 – 80,000 words
  • Romance: 75,000 – 100,000 words
  • Science fiction: 90,000 – 100,000 words
  • Fantasy: 180,000 – 200,000 or more words
  • Other fiction: 80,000 – 120,000 words

That doesn’t mean that manuscripts exceeding these word counts can’t get published. They can and they do. But, if you exceed these ranges, your work better be exceptional to justify the extra cost involved. Even then, you will have to work harder to sell your work.

I’m planning to self-publish, so my word count doesn’t matter. (NOT!)

Word count still matters. You’ll need the help of an editor and they charge more for longer works. If you plan to print paperback or hardcover, bigger books will cost you more.

Most importantly (and this applies to both physical and digital works), readers understand that longer works require a larger investment of their time — and will often avoid large works by unknown authors.

Don’t let your word count block your creativity.

Don’t be like me. On my first novel, when I got to point where I could estimate the word count for the completed work, I would panic and start chopping and reworking. I made it 75% to 80% of the way on four different rewrites of my first manuscript before I finally finished. I had to give myself permission to overrun my word count target in order to get all the way to the finish line.

My advice: Write your story from beginning to end without worrying about the number of words or pages. Once you are done, you can address word count issues in the edit phase.

Novel Word Count References

If you are interesting in more on this subject, here are some articles to review:


It’s important to make every word in your novel count. Be sure to Omit Needless Words. But put word count concerns out of your mind while you are writing. When you finish, then focus on tightening up your manuscript.

As always, your thoughts and opinions are welcomed. Please comment below.

Okay. You’ve done enough research. Get back to writing!



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