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Word counts, regarding chapters and manuscript length (1 Viewer)

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Why do you do a chapter word count?
Why wouldn't I? I write to spec. If I set out to write a 100K novel, I write a 100K novel. If I set out to write a 3K chapter or a 5K chapter, that's what I write. I don't write bloat (anymore LOL). The way I started out in the business pretty much set me up to write to spec for a lifetime. If you have a budget for the word count of the novel, the chapters are building blocks, and I have a rough idea of how many chapters I'll be writing.

It certainly helps in the decision of if I should include this or that intermediate scene. Should I write the travel, or should they just 'be there'? Have I got too much plot, or too little? Does the scene I'm pondering actually set up some required future element of the story, or not? If it does, how long does it need to be to do its work? Is a 'scene setting' sequence running too long?

I'm at 4K in a chapter. If the next scene is going to be short and fits with the theme of the chapter, there's room for it. If I know it's going to be an extended half-chapter long scene, there's not.

These are things I must decide to write interesting, well-paced fiction, and word count is one metric to provide information.

However, I DO see authors go a bit TOO FAR with word count for their chapter breaks. In reading the first two Sue Grafton, I have to believe that she often broke chapters STRICTLY on word count. Her MC could be picking up a cup of coffee ... next chapter. Now she takes a sip. LOL

Also, from what I read, the trend is towards readers preferring shorter chapters. Knowing the word count in a chapter is pretty much the only way I can figure to keep track of that.
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Media Manager
Why wouldn't I? I write to spec. If I set out to write a 100K novel, I write a 100K novel. If I set out to write a 3K chapter or a 5K chapter, that's what I write. I don't write bloat (anymore LOL). The way I started out in the business pretty much set me up to write to spec for a lifetime. If you have a budget for the word count of the novel, the chapters are building blocks, and I have a rough idea of how many chapters I'll be writing.

It certainly helps in the decision of if I should include this or that intermediate scene. Should I write the travel, or should they just 'be there'? Have I got too much plot, or too little? Does the scene I'm pondering actually set up some required future element of the story, or not? If it does, how long does it need to be to do its work? Is a 'scene setting' sequence running too long?

I'm at 4K in a chapter. If the next scene is going to be short and fits with the theme of the chapter, there's room for it. If I know it's going to be an extended half-chapter long scene, there's not.

These are things I must decide to write interesting, well-paced fiction, and word count is one metric to provide information.

However, I DO see authors go a bit TOO FAR with word count for their chapter breaks. In reading the first two Sue Grafton, I have to believe that she often broke chapters STRICTLY on word count. Her MC could be picking up a cup of coffee ... next chapter. Now she takes a sip. LOL

Also, from what I read, the trend is towards readers preferring shorter chapters. Knowing the word count in a chapter is pretty much the only way I can figure to keep track of that.

You and Ken may be doing your writing a great disservice by keeping such rigid word counts...especially for chapter length.
Writing is an art form, not an assembly line. The best stories come from the heart...not a spreadsheet.
Not only that...but what are you basing your chapter breaks on? There are really no standards for that...and word count is an arbitrary reason to end a chapter.

Ken: You have an impressive list of published work, but your books are only clocking in with 4-star ratings. Dump the artificial word-count limitations and write from the heart, and likely you will pull better numbers. You have the skill to pull 4.5s, but you are allowing artificially imposed word-counts to hold you back.

$0.02
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
You and Ken may be doing your writing a great disservice by keeping such rigid word counts...especially for chapter length.
Writing is an art form, not an assembly line. The best stories come from the heart...not a spreadsheet.
At the end of my comment, I pretty clearly gave an example of dicey adherence to 'rigid word count'. There is a lot of art to writing, but I'll compare it to other art. If a painter can't manage to stay on his canvas, he's wasting his time. If a composer writes a 30-minute piece of music for a ten-minute window, he's wasting his time.

If a writer has no self-control or technical knowledge of what he's doing, he's also wasting his time. (Also her, to be inclusive). I can type away on stories. I'm a touch typist (once over 100 wpm but now typically about 90) and I can fill that screen. I could type 200k or 250K every time out, but I'm not going to. Not that many people WANT to read books that long, and I don't want to write a book that long. Why write one unreadable book when I can write two very good books with the same effort. :)

Even in my first novel, when I got to 80K, I realized that if I wrote my entire remaining synopsis, I'd be writing 125K. I didn't WANT to write 125K, I wanted to write 100K. I reworked the synopsis and cut down on 4th act action, and guess what? Not a single reader knew the difference. Plus, the story was tighter and better for doing that. I can tell when a writer is dragging it out. I'll reference JK Rowling in the last 4 Harry Potter books ... utterly self-indulgent ... and poor books if you hadn't already committed to the story by reading the first three. All four would have been MUCH better books by being trimmed by half (or more).

Writers should keep readers in mind, not only themselves.

So, if I want to write a story in 85K or 100K, I'd better know how many words I'm writing, and I'd better keep track of it along the way so I can pace my story. You may confuse writing to spec with mechanical writing. I don't. I may be lucky, but I can choose a specific word count, write a compelling scene, and if I need to, hit that count on the nose. Everyone who enters challenges here does that, so it's not only me. My one recent failure on writing to spec I'll forgive, because it led to writing a novel instead. LOL
 
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indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
At the end of my comment, I pretty clearly gave an example of dicey adherence to 'rigid word count'. There is a lot of art to writing, but I'll compare it to other art. If a painter can't manage to stay on his canvas, he's wasting his time. If a composer writes a 30-minute piece of music for a ten-minute window, he's wasting his time.

If a writer has no self-control or technical knowledge of what he's doing, he's also wasting his time. (Also her, to be inclusive). I can type away on stories. I'm a touch typist (once over 100 wpm but now typically about 90) and I can fill that screen. I could type 200k or 250K every time out, but I'm not going to. Not that many people WANT to read books that long, and I don't want to write a book that long. Why write one unreadable book when I can write two very good books with the same effort. :)

Even in my first novel, when I got to 80K, I realized that if I wrote my entire remaining synopsis, I'd be writing 125K. I didn't WANT to write 125K, I wanted to write 100K. I reworked the synopsis and cut down on 4th act action, and guess what? Not a single reader knew the difference. Plus, the story was tighter and better for doing that. I can tell when a writer is dragging it out. I'll reference JK Rowling in the last 4 Harry Potter books ... utterly self-indulgent ... and poor books if you hadn't already committed to the story by reading the first three. All four would have been MUCH better books by being trimmed by half (or more).

Writers should keep readers in mind, not only themselves.

So, if I want to write a story in 85K or 100K, I'd better know how many words I'm writing, and I'd better keep track of it along the way so I can pace my story. You may confuse writing to spec with mechanical writing. I don't. I may be lucky, but I can choose a specific word count, write a compelling scene, and if I need to, hit that count on the nose. Everyone who enters challenges here does that, so it's not only me. My one recent failure on writing to spec I'll forgive, because it led to writing a novel instead. LOL
I completely agree with @vranger .

Firstly, burying your story beneath a mountain of purple prose is not good writing. I prefer to keep my writing lean and use vivid descriptions where it fits the story. IMO, describing a character as 'a young athletic woman with blonde hair' is enough to paint a picture in the reader's mind, there's no need to give the location of her moles, or go into her family history if it isn't related to the story.

There's also the matter of the market - preferred word count for SciFi (which is mostly what I write) is 80K to 110K. Too short and the readers feel cheated. Too long and it becomes a door stop. I keep mine at 95K - 100K.
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Media Manager
At the end of my comment, I pretty clearly gave an example of dicey adherence to 'rigid word count'. There is a lot of art to writing, but I'll compare it to other art. If a painter can't manage to stay on his canvas, he's wasting his time. If a composer writes a 30-minute piece of music for a ten-minute window, he's wasting his time.

If a writer has no self-control or technical knowledge of what he's doing, he's also wasting his time. (Also her, to be inclusive). I can type away on stories. I'm a touch typist (once over 100 wpm but now typically about 90) and I can fill that screen. I could type 200k or 250K every time out, but I'm not going to. Not that many people WANT to read books that long, and I don't want to write a book that long. Why write one unreadable book when I can write two very good books with the same effort. :)

Even in my first novel, when I got to 80K, I realized that if I wrote my entire remaining synopsis, I'd be writing 125K. I didn't WANT to write 125K, I wanted to write 100K. I reworked the synopsis and cut down on 4th act action, and guess what? Not a single reader knew the difference. Plus, the story was tighter and better for doing that. I can tell when a writer is dragging it out. I'll reference JK Rowling in the last 4 Harry Potter books ... utterly self-indulgent ... and poor books if you hadn't already committed to the story by reading the first three. All four would have been MUCH better books by being trimmed by half (or more).

Writers should keep readers in mind, not only themselves.

So, if I want to write a story in 85K or 100K, I'd better know how many words I'm writing, and I'd better keep track of it along the way so I can pace my story. You may confuse writing to spec with mechanical writing. I don't. I may be lucky, but I can choose a specific word count, write a compelling scene, and if I need to, hit that count on the nose. Everyone who enters challenges here does that, so it's not only me. My one recent failure on writing to spec I'll forgive, because it led to writing a novel instead. LOL

Write how you choose.
I bring it up because once upon a time I wrote that way. I adhered to strict word limits because of urban myths I heard from some randos. Ruined my first book that way. Could never get my ratings above 4 stars...
But once I threw out the word limits and just wrote the story that needed to be written, my ratings went up. Now most of my books have 4.5 star ratings.
Writing is an artform, but managing it as tightly as you advocate is more science than art. Writing isn't twitter...there is no character limit. Write the best story you can, and if that takes 125k words, then so be it.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Write how you choose.
I bring it up because once upon a time I wrote that way. I adhered to strict word limits because of urban myths I heard from some randos.
When the "urban myth" appears in submission guidelines, it's a good idea to consider them. ;-)

But to tell me that the ability to write to spec denies the ability to create art? Horseshit. I've enjoyed myriad novels where the author adhered to a word limit, and never once did I think, "Wow, this sucked because it wasn't twice as long."

However, there have been QUITE A FEW times where I read something where I said, "Sheesh, this is dragging on and on, get on with it already" ... at times skipping sections of pages to get through the dross to find a story again ... and then dropping that author from future consideration.

Certainly there are notable exceptions, but the vast majority of books published in print are written to, or edited down to, a word limit. And trust me ... there is PLENTY of art in figuring out to cut 20 pages to meet press requirements ... for either printing the book or magazine serialization. We're both self-published, and that allows you to put as much length into an ebook as your heart desires. If we were working with a print publisher, you'd have to develop the discipline to work with the business side of writing, and it does not detract from being able to enjoy the book. It often improves it. That includes Hugo Award winning novels, which is the area I'm personally most familiar with.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Show me ONE publisher who has word limits for each chapter.
I'm referring to manuscript length rather than chapter length in that context, of course. The discussion of chapter length is a different subject. I prefer a chapter to have a particular focus, a strong ending, and be within a certain range for length. And yes, I've seen novels with one sentence chapters and enormous chapters in the same book. Not me, and never will be. With me, if you want to read and finish a chapter before you turn off the nightstand lamp, you have a good idea what you're in for ... and if you want to stretch it one more chapter ... you STILL do.

Since the last flare-up of this conversation, I did a bit of research with the hundreds of books currently organized by Calibre for my Kindle library ... by finding an add-on which produced an estimated word count. Older novels tend to be much shorter than more recent novels, and various genres typically fall into the ranges you'll see published when you search by novel lengths per genre. Once upon a time, sci-fi novels fell into the same word ranges as mystery and romance ... now sci-fi and fantasy get a bit more room. However, the typical mystery and romance aren't that much longer than they've ever been. Especially for untried authors, publishers are wary about running away with length.

Something else I found, or rather verified since I already knew examples and suspected it to be true over a broader range than personal experience, is that published authors who draw a reliable fan base get longer as their bibliography grows. Not for every book, but a bankable author who was first published at 85K words for a mystery can get away with 100K plus when they wish to. That doesn't necessarily mean their 100K word novel is any better than the 85K novel, just that they can get away with it.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
It does appear that there are word count expectations by genre. For myself, I identified that 100K was about the right amount for crime suspense. Interesting though, I was trying to test the theory and found this list on Reddit. Steven King, who mostly writes in the same genre has quite a variety in word count.

Thanks to the person who compiled it! Something good that came out of quarantine.

 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
And if we want to focus on word counts in chapters instead of the whole book:

 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
This thread has recently been added to with more information about word counts in genres, and a link to an article which discusses the importance of satisfying word count guidelines for authors who wish to try to snag a publisher.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
And if we want to focus on word counts in chapters instead of the whole book:

Ah...that may be why The Goldfinch was so grueling to get through. Over 24K per chapter. Seems a bit self-indulgent. Readers need natural breaks so they can feel they have accomplished something, not just putting a book down in mid-chapter.

I understand book word counts, for marketing purposes, but chapter length seems to be more of a style thing. For my work, my sweet spot is chapters between 1200 and 2500.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Ah...that may be why The Goldfinch was so grueling to get through. Over 24K per chapter. Seems a bit self-indulgent. Readers need natural breaks so they can feel they have accomplished something, not just putting a book down in mid-chapter.

I understand book word counts, for marketing purposes, but chapter length seems to be more of a style thing. For my work, my sweet spot is chapters between 1200 and 2500.
And you're right. It has a LOT to do with style. I just read that some popular thrillers (a genre I never read in mainstream) have average chapter lengths of 600-700 words. Even at your 1200, I can go that long just to set the stage for the action I want the chapter to end with. LOL I might have 1000 words in a dialogue section. I've been trying to focus @PiP and myself in the 3K range. Mostly success, but we have a few in the 4K range and a couple in the 5K range. And I've split some chapters to hit that 3K range, which in itself is going to result in an extra Julia chapter as we introduce the characters.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
And you're right. It has a LOT to do with style. I just read that some popular thrillers (a genre I never read in mainstream) have average chapter lengths of 600-700 words. Even at your 1200, I can go that long just to set the stage for the action I want the chapter to end with. LOL I might have 1000 words in a dialogue section. I've been trying to focus @PiP and myself in the 3K range. Mostly success, but we have a few in the 4K range and a couple in the 5K range. And I've split some chapters to hit that 3K range, which in itself is going to result in an extra Julia chapter as we introduce the characters.
This seems to me like much ado about nothing… :)
Chapters are the chewable bites of the story; too short the reader nibbles, but overly long the reader gorges, however an over stuffed belly might be remedied by breaking it into scenes.
Chapters and scenes give the reader a place to stop and resume. Like many here, I’ve read books with no chapters, just scenes. I’ve also read stories with a zillion chapters and no scenes.
In the end, I remember the story, not the length of the chapters.
 

Travalgar

Senior Member
I'm pretty sure this discussion belonged to another thread a few weeks ago. I do remember it being divergent to the thread topic, though. Good job at splitting it, staff members!

I'm in both camps. I do believe that one should not limit their writing by setting a rigid word count expectations for each of their chapters. However, I'm also of the opinion that setting such targets might help some of us who tend to ramble on their proses (i.e. describing too much about a particular scene instead of progressing the story), and also on the other end of the spectrum some of us who had a habit of not giving enough "meat" to it (moving the scene in a rush, not explaining an element enough to the point of the story becoming incomprehensible, etc.).
 
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