Word Count: How long is too long?

Last night I was searching for articles about chapter length, and I came across this post about the subject (and word counts) by AJ Humpage.

She goes to great lengths to tell us, the readers of her article, that we are writing too many words and that we should pare them back. How many words is too many, according to AJ Humpage? Anything over 100,000. 100,000!

Now I don’t know her, but it does seem that she has decided that many of the classics of English literature are too long for our feeble readers’ minds to cope with. This may be because she has a history in publishing – more on that later.

 Is my word count too high?

If you ask AJ Humpage, the answer almost certainly going to be ‘yes’, but I feel it’s interesting to put it into perspective. Chances are that if you’re a writer then you’ve got one or more of the following books on your shelf, so let’s see how your word count compares1.

First, some books for younger readers, none of which are particularly taxing:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl 30,644
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe CS Lewis 36,3632
The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame 58,428
Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson 66,950
The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett 80,398

And some classic novels that AJ Humpage would have you believe are too long to be comfortably enjoyed:

To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee 100,388
Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen 119,394
Schindler’s Ark Thomas Keneally 134,710
Oliver Twist Charles Dickens 155,960
Emma Jane Austen 155,887
Little Women Louisa May Alcott 183,833
Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë 183,858

War and Peace

Ah, Tolstoy’s epic tome, which strikes fear into the hearts of all but the most adventurous of readers. It’s too long! I’d never finish it! I hear you cry. But is that really true?

Have you read the Harry Potter books? The Lord of the Rings? The Chronicles of Narnia? If the answer to any of those is ‘yes’, then you can find the time to read War and Peace. Don’t believe me?

The word count for War and Peace (not actually the longest book ever, but certainly one of the best known epics) is 587,287.

The cumulative total word count for all seven books in The Chronicles of Narnia is 321,396 (54.7% of War and Peace)

The Lord of the Rings plus The Hobbit run to 556,147 (94.6% of War and Peace)

Harry Potter eclipses them all with a staggering 1,084,625 words! (184.7% of War and Peace)

But a publisher won’t accept a 150,00 word manuscript!

Sadly, this is true. Publishers rarely accept such a long manuscript, because they feel that it’s just too long for the modern reader, and there’s the economic concerns of printing a longer novel in bulk. And of course we should accept what they say because they know the market better than we do. They deal with this on a daily basis, so they know what they’re talking about.

However, it’s important to note that 12 publishers turned down Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with the most common reason being that a word count of 77,325 was just too high for a children’s book. Eventually the manuscript was given to an actual child, who loved it so much that it was accepted for publishing, and the rest is history.

So are publishing houses the utmost authority on how long a novel should be? Of course not. The only person who can say a novel is too long is the reader. The 8-year-old who first read Harry Potter certainly didn’t think it was too long, and nor have the countless children who have read it since.

Add to this that the word count can vary vastly between the real figure and the standard calculation that publishers request, and a publisher could turn you down because the estimate is too high, but of course it may be 10-20,000 higher than the real number of written words. The standard calculation is as follows3:

  1. Count the number of characters in an average, mid-paragraph line (BTW, this all assumes a monospaced font. If you’re using a proportional font, the number of characters can vary immensely, throwing off the numbers and word count).
  2. Divide by six. This is the number of words per line.
  3. Count the number of lines on a page. (This includes any # for blank lines.)
  4. Multiply #2 by #3 to get the number of words per page.
  5. Multiply by the number of full pages (plus any fractional pages), to get the total number of words.
  6. Round the number to the nearest hundred. Authors tend to round up; editors round down. This is the number you put on the front page of the manuscript.

This calculation assumes an average number of characters/words per line, when in practice there will be a wide variation, and you can see how over the course of a 300 page novel there will be a considerable difference in sentence lengths and dialogue, which will equate to a disparity between the estimated and true word count figures.

Of course all of this is moot if you plan to self publish, in which case I suggest you use source a few potential readers and let them decide if it’s too long. In the hands of the right audience, no novel is too long, although you may wish to use a ‘Print on Demand’ service for a particularly verbose novel.

With that, I’m off to read War and Peace. 

x Rebecca

Footnotes

  1. Word counts were found here and here.
  2. This is quite possibly the absolute coolest word count ever!
  3. Word count calculation as found at SFWA.

14 Replies to “Word Count: How long is too long?”

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