Word Count and Books: Longer or Shorter?

As a child, especially during my elementary and middle school days, if, for some reason, I had run out of books to read (which quite honestly never happened, but bear with me for the sake of the illustration), and I went in pursuit of my next reading material at the local bookshop or library, I would make a straight dash to the shelf with the thickest, biggest, longest book I could find. In fact, the more obnoxiously long it was, the better.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who understands this (a bewildering phenomenon to those for whom the shorter the book, the better, the less of a chore). I know many readers who enjoy picking out such books because they don’t want the magical experience to end, desperately yearning to stay comfortably lost in the pages forever – or at least until bloody reality comes knocking on their doors. For me, this never seemed to be the issue. The moment I finished a book, I would just move on to the next before I even had time to process and experience the sensation of loss when parting ways, like a guy who would jump quickly to another girl in the immediate aftermath of a breakup (mind you, I’m not talking from personal experience – really).

SwordTrilogySimply put, I revelled in the sense of achievement I reaped from reading lengthy books. And I enjoyed the attention I received from friends when I as a short, miniscule boy carried around a book bigger than my head. Take, for example, The Sword of Shannara series by Terry Brooks. The Original Shannara Trilogy was compiled in an over-sized, hardcover edition (1200 pages) and so naturally, instead of buying 3 separate books, I bought the one. It was a beauty.

220px-Shannara_HeritageYou can imagine my ecstasy when the next part in the series, The Heritage of Shannara Tetralogy, was also compiled into one massive tome (1248 pages) the following year. I beamed proudly as I carried it under my arm at school, trying hard to prevent my arm from shaking because of the weight, classmates whispering and pointing fingers, asking if they could have a look.

Which comes to the question: are longer or shorter books better? Hmm, I understand this is a futile question, so I guess the question would be: which do you prefer?

As both a reader and writer, word count is entirely fascinating. My first conscious awareness of the number of words in books stemmed from my NaNoWriMo experience back in 2005 when I was 13. This writing event held in November challenged writers to write a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days. At that time, 50,000 words was a meaningless number, which was for the better since I was freed from the pressure associated with the (now) formidable length, how many words I’d have to write a day in order to meet that goal, etc. As a child who innocently loved the act of writing, I didn’t think much about it; I just wrote. If only I could do that now!

Proof.

Proof.

I reached the goal successfully, hitting 50,353 words. That amounted to almost 100 pages, single-spaced. I was happy, proud of myself and feeling rather accomplished. But I was also puzzled: I was only halfway through my story.

Wasn’t 50,000 words a lot? Yet I had so much more to tell, more of the story to unfold. (Sadly, I never got around to finishing it.) Was 50,000 words an easy goal then? Wait a minute, how long are novels usually? How many words?

At the time, I remember searching for novels that were 50,000 words long. These are the closest and most well-known:

  • Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury): 46,118 words
  • The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald): 47,094 words
  • The Outsiders (Hinton): 48,523 words
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (Vonnegut): 49,459 words

It’s only recently that I began looking into this word count issue in more detail, curious to discover the answers to the questions above. There are no fixed rules, but these are some generally accepted lengths that I’ve noticed after perusing several competitions and literary magazines, stories and books, and the Wikipedia page on ‘Word count‘.

  • Twitter Fiction (stories that fit in a tweet): <140 characters
  • Flash Fiction: ranges from <250 words (Bridport Prize) to <700 or <800 words (Litro) to <1000 words (Ambit)
  • Short Stories: usually <5000 words (Bridport Prize, Litro, Ambit) though some stipulate <2000 or <3000 words (Popshot) or even <7500 words
  • Novellas (between a short story and novel): usually longer than 7500 words but shorter than 40,000 words
  • Novels: usually >40,000 or >50,000 words (NaNoWriMo)

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Recently, I found this beautiful infographic on ShortList.com presenting the word count of various works: epic novels, famous series (A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings), novellas, epic poems, specific authors (Hemingway, Shakespeare, Austen), etc. You can view the infographic in its entirety here: ‘Literary World Count Infographic

615x330_hero3The infographic first addresses epic novels, or namely the longest novels in English. I knew War and Peace and Les Miserables (well, the English translations) were massive, but 500,000+ words?! More than double the intimidating Ulysses – mindblowing, if you think about it. I’ve read Bleak House but it took me a solid week of reading several hours daily to finish it (and I am a fast reader).

However, I found it interesting that they didn’t include the longest novel in the English language, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson with 984,870 words (you can read a short story I wrote entitled ‘Clarrisa‘); they also left out Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand with 645,000 words. (Wikipedia article on ‘List of longest novels‘)

I found the lengths of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series rather interesting. I remember rereading the first three books over and over, because they were entertaining, and because they were short enough that I could tear through them in no time. But when the fourth book came out, I was astounded (and delighted) at how much thicker it was in comparison, and sure enough its word count is more than double the first book’s. (Unexpectedly, Goblet of Fire is also longer than each book in the Lord of the Rings series.) I was also surprised that the Philosopher’s Stone contains 76,944 words – reading it at the time, it definitely didn’t feel that long, but I guess it’s testament to the captivating story Rowling masterfully crafted.

  • Harry_Potter_English_Australian_SeriesHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: 76,944 words
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: 85,141 words
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: 107,253 words
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 190,637 words
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: 257,045 words
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: 168,923 words
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 198,227 words

615x330_hero5Novellas are a tricky subject because no one really knows what it is. It’s like a long short story or a short novel, in-between and difficult to categorise. But more and more it’s been recognised as a legitimate category and it has famous works to support its righteous endeavour: Animal Farm (Orwell), A Christmas Carol (Dickens), Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck), A Clockwork Orange (Burgess), The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway), Heart of Darkness (Conrad), etc.

The other day, I sat at a bookshop selling English books in Ikebukuro, Tokyo and read The Old Man and the Sea (26,601 word) in less than an hour, which gives you an idea of how short (or long) novellas are.

(It’s often said that novellas are difficult to publish, promote and sell commercially because most publishers require a word count more appropriate for either short stories or full-length novels. I personally like novellas because you’re free from the restriction of a limited word count of a short story, as well as the need for a painstakingly elaborate novel structure.)

Other observations of the infographic: I was surprised at how short Shakespeare’s works were, Hamlet being his longest at 30,066 words and Macbeth his shortest at 17,084 words. But then again, it was all written in elaborately formulated verse and prose, much different from writing something entirely in the latter. And it makes Milton look all the more impressive with his epic Paradise Lost coming in at 80,055 words – can you imagine writing a poem longer than Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone?!

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A sample page from BIBLIOTHECA

I’ll end this post with the word count of the Bible, which obviously differs depending on which English translation you’re talking about. I found this forum where someone posted the word counts of different translations; I don’t know how accurate these are but I’m willing to bet they’re pretty close, or at least close enough for the satisfying of my curiosity. The current KJV has 790,676 words, while the popular NIV has 726,109 words. I personally like ESV (757,439 words) and NLT (747,891 words).

2 years ago, I read the entire Bible (NLT) in 2 weeks, with several hours of reading every day. It may seem daunting but it’s definitely not impossible. It’s only 100,000 words more than Atlas Shrugged and if you’re one of the few who has actually read Clarissa, the Bible will be a breeze. (I’m being slightly sarcastic, if you didn’t catch my drift.)

On a related note, Adam Lewis Greene recently succeeded in Kickstarting a fascinating project called BIBLIOTHECA that will design and craft four elegant volumes containing the entire Bible free of all numbers (chapters, verses) and notes, allowing people to read it as a work of literature. It’s available for pre-order for those interested!

I can only speculate about how long my first novel will be. 75,000 words? 100,000 words? Maybe even 200,000 words? Ok, enough daydreaming. Back to writing.

(For more detailed information on word count, check out the following helpful sites: ‘Great Novels and Word Count‘, ‘Word Count for Famous Novels (organized)‘, ‘For Novelists, Does Size Really Matter? Let’s Talk Word Count‘)

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One thought on “Word Count and Books: Longer or Shorter?

  1. Pingback: [Book Tag] Keep It Fresh Award – The Lazy Reading Panda

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