Writing a Book: It Is Not About the Word Count

By: Mary Anna Rodabaugh in Book Writing and Editing
on August 25th, 2021

At the slightest pain or sign of a cold, many people run to Google and research their symptoms. The process of research gives the information-seeker a sense of control. It is an action—a proactive approach to finding a solution to a problem—even though they are often met with information that induces more stress.

The same process is true for new authors. When diving into the wonderful world of book writing, new authors like to research everything they can about the craft. From writing forums to cheat sheets and “how to” hack sites, new authors absorb the information with tenacity and excitement.

Then they try to apply everything they’ve learned to writing a book. It is often met with the same overwhelm one feels when discovering fifteen possible conditions that align with two physical symptoms.

“Writing a book is not like writing a term paper...”

Banish Book Writing “Shoulds”

The thing is, almost every resource is going to have a different opinion. If you want to know how many pages your book should be, you can’t really go by the number of pages in your word processing program. Don’t forget, your book will be formatted into a different font size, line spacing, and page size when it is published. Therefore, a 100-page Word document is not necessarily going to translate into a 100-page printed book.

The same can be said for word count. Often, writers ask us “how many words should my book be?” This line of thinking is typically fostered at a young age. Think back to high school or college when you had to write term papers. Your teachers gave you specific word counts or page counts that you had to meet to earn your grade. Writing a book is not like writing a term paper and unless you have a publisher who demands a specific word/page count, you are not bound by those parameters anymore.

So, when you’re determining how long your book “should” be, before you even start writing, we would caution you to stop. Banish the book writing “shoulds.” The most important element you should be focusing on as you dive into the book writing process is the content of your story.

Writing a Book It Is Not about the Word Count open book

It Is What’s Inside Your Book That Matters

Let’s say you write a 70,000-word memoir. This memoir is filled with stories, peppered with details, and even a tad bit of redundancy. But you wanted your book to be meaty and your favorite author wrote a 70,000-word book as well. Is your memoir going to be memorable? Will it change people? Will it move people? Or, did you get so hung up on the word count that you created a beautifully large sheet cake but forgot a cup of sugar in your recipe?

Now, if you write a 50,000-word memoir, you may be worried that your book is “too short.” There are no hard and fast rules. It is your book! (Unless your publisher tells you otherwise.) Your stories have just the right blend of emotion and detail. The pacing feels fast, but not rushed, and readers are eager to turn the page. Now you have a beautiful (albeit smaller) cake that has all the ingredients.

Start writing your book!

Book Writing and Word Count Guidance

Simple internet research says that most novels run between 60,000 and 100,000 words. (But yes, there are other resources that say anything over 40,000 is fine.) Memoirs around 75,000 to 95,000 and self-help or prescriptive non-fiction usually fall between 40–55,000. But these numbers are relative!

The reality is, you should focus on the crux of your story. Map out your major plot points, characters, and scenes. Determine the sensory details you need to bring your readers into the story. Make sure each story deserves to be in your book. And when all else fails, hire a book writing editor. Sometimes you need a little help to trim the fat or expound upon a scene you may have glossed over. An editor can help you pinpoint these areas.

Once you have a completed draft, then, and only then, should you consider word count. Now, an exception to the rule is if you’re trying to measure your writing progress by word count. You may want to track the number of words written during each writing session to stay on a self-assigned target or milestone. If that is the case, by all means, word count away!