Word Count

I started a conversation in a Writer’s Group that I participate in on Facebook. I don’t think, however, that I quite got across the point of what I was asking about.

Here is what I posted to the group:

Why is there a word-count competition?

We talk about word count a lot, as though it is a competition to get books as large as possible.

I have written everything from flash fiction (about 1k) to short stories (anything from 2k – 15k), novellas, and novels (my longest being about 130k words or so).

The storytelling style, the story development, even the enjoyment of the story itself varies between flash-fiction, short stories, novellas, and novels. Even with novels, the style of storytelling is going to vary if your book is 80k, 130k, 180k, the Stand, etc.

So, what do you think happened to the appreciation of both writing and reading the different types of stories?

Is there a way to fix this?

Now, people immediately decided to defend the need for things like:

  • authors monitoring word count
  • word count as a way to differentiate between types of stories
  • complaints against authors who list a 5k story as a “novel”

Monitoring Word Count

Monitoring word count is important. Word count matters. It does. If you know you want to write a novel, you should know the average word count in your genre (it can vary). If you are falling below the target word count, that means that you need to examine your story to see if something is missing. If it goes above the target word count then you need to look and see if anything can be taken out. Maybe you have a scene that is not doing anything for the story. We talk about showing and not telling, but sometimes you can just tell the reader what happens, you do not have to make it a scene. An example: a drive. You do not have to give the details of the drive (show it) unless you have drama occurring during the drive, some significant plot element taking place, or some key description that you need to make sure the reader sees on the drive. You can just tell the reader the drive takes place, with any highlights that may help introduce the next “show” scene.

Word Count Differentiates Styles of Story

When we say things like Novel, Novelette, Novella, Short Story, and Flash Fiction, we are not just talking about lengths of a work. We are also talking about styles of writing. A work of flash fiction is written differently than a Novella. A short story and a novelette, while similar, are also written differently. So are novels and novellas. The differences come in how characters, settings, and plots are explored and developed. Flash fiction tends to drop you into the heart of the action and wrap up the story when the scene ends. A short story generally focuses on one major event, with just enough set up to get you there and either bring you down from it or leave you hanging. A novelette gives a little more set-up around the short story. A novella will deal with one major event and its sub-events, but it will go into the details of the characters, settings, and events the way that a novel will. A novel will usually have one major event – the climax – with a lot of other major and minor events surrounding and leading up to it, all while developing the plot, characters, and setting. It is important when you are writing a story to know the style of writing you want to use so that you know the word count that you should aim for. That helps you monitor to make sure you’re telling the story that needs to be told – no more, no less.

Word Count and Keeping Authors Honest

Amazon is rife with “novels” that are only about 40 pages long. Sometimes they are even shorter than that. Authors should properly represent their story. This can be as simple as not calling out what the story is (short story, novel, etc) and letting the word or page count display as normal for the retailer. It can also mean stating your work is a Short Story when it is, or a Novel, when it is. When we misrepresent the style of story, we disappoint readers. This is tendency by some authors to misrepresent the style of their work could be one of the reasons why I have my actual complaint.

What Am I Talking About?

In another thread for the group, someone mentioned that any work less than 40k in word count is essentially worthless. It is not worth reading, period. As someone who has written a large number of short stories, I found this offensive. I also found this offensive as someone who had enjoyed short stories and novellas over the years. Some of the greatest works in literature are short stories and novellas. They do not approach the 40k mark, much less go over it.

I have read plenty of novels (looking at you Tommyknockers) that could have used getting word count cut – significantly.

The person sharing this sentiment is not alone. I have seen plenty of complaints in reviews and in comments and threads. A story is too short. Short stories are not worth the time to read.

Or buy.

Just like the novel, the short story is an art form. So is the novella, the novelette, and flash fiction. A work should not be discounted just because it is short. Does it tell the story the author intended to tell? Did you feel like the story was completed by the end? Did you allow yourself to ignore the length and enjoy the story? Then it does not matter what the length is. The story was good.

Even if it was only 600 words.

This is what I was talking about in the group post. This is what needs to be fixed, this idea that a story has to be long to be good. Unfortunately, Amazon has not helped this at all. Amazon’s changes to Kindle Unlimited payouts for authors means that short stories, novelettes, and novellas have just been devalued. Amazon is saying that they are not worth as much as a novel – not because of their content and storytelling, but because of their length. That is not right. A major bookseller should know better. So should other authors.

So should readers. You grew up on short stories that were not written for children. You studied them in school. They were examples of great literature.

That has not changed.

A Word Count Guide

Here is a simple word count guide for you. This will help when you are working on your own story, depending on the style of story you are going for.

Word Counts for Science Fiction and Fantasy (mileage in other genres will vary).

Classification Word count
Novel over 40,000 words
Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
Short story under 7,500 words

Courtesy of Wikipedia

That’s all of the soap boxing I need to do today. Good reading and writing everyone.

And remember, show some love to a shorter work today.

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  1. #1 by David Alexian on June 23, 2015 - 9:07 pm

    Thank you for this discussion. It was quite helpful. I am a new writer and have placed two books so far on Amazon. I will add this information to my files.
    Thanks very much.

  2. #2 by David Alexian on June 23, 2015 - 9:01 pm

    Reblogged this on The Young Novelist.

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