How many words are too many words?

“Write concisely” always appears on rules for good writing.  And some writers follow that rule.of-mice-and-men-book-cover

  • John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has 29,150 words. He later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, has 26,601 words. He too won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Agatha Christie, the best-selling writer of all time, wrote novels averaging between 40,000 and 60,000 words, with female murderers’ stories usually using fewer words than male murders’ stories.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, required reading in many American high schools, has 47,094 words.persuasion-book-cover
  • K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel has about 77,000 words but her fifth and longest one has about 250,000 words—more than three times as many as her first.
  • Jane Austen, the second most widely known English writer today (Shakespeare is first), wrote Persuasion, considered her best novel by many critics, with 87,978 words.

But other writers have ignored the advice to write concisely, and they have done well for themselves.

  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has 183,858 words.
  • Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has around 349,700 words English translations and his War and Peace has between 561,000 and 587,000 words, depending on the translation.
  • Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has 418,053 words. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

gone-with-the-wind-book-coverIs there an optimal number of words in novels?  It turns out publishers think so.

  • 20,000 to 55,000 is best for middle grades novels.
  • 60,000 words is best for young adult fiction.
  • 80,000 words is best for most general adult fiction, mystery fiction, and literary fiction. (Memoirs, which are nonfiction, also top off at 80,000 words.)
  • 110,000 words is the ideal length for sci-fi fiction and fantasy fiction.

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