Does size really matter? Multiple people have asked me what my aim is for the length of my book. How many words is it going to have? My response is always the same: I’ll stop writing when it’s done. Size matters, but not in the stifling way that many writers view it. There are also many different facets of length that will affect your overall finished work.
Final Word Count
This is one of the most useless tools for a writer when they are doing their first draft. Like many aspects of writing, adding barriers that stifle your creativity are rarely a good thing. Caring about your word count is one of those barriers. If you set out for your book to be around the 80,000 word mark and you reach that at about the two thirds mark, what are you going to do? Continue writing knowing in your head that you’re going to have to cut a significant chunk of your book? Rush the ending so you’re as close to the 80 as you can be? Both of these options do nothing but damage the creative process.
There are categories of stories—novels, novella, short story, flash fiction—that will put your story into a box based on its word count. If you’re writing a novel then the average is about 70 to 120 thousand words, with different genres having slightly different ranges. Having said that, agents and publishers will have different sizes that they are looking for based on current market trends and what will sell well. But that’s their problem, not yours.
The number one thing that you need to do, as a writer, is tell the story that you want to tell. If that takes 2,000 or 200,000 words, then that’s the story that needs to be told. That’s so important in the first draft, as well. Get your story onto the page. When you go back to look at it you’ll find sections that need to be cut, parts that need to be expanded upon, or entire subplots that you didn’t realise would be good to explore. Edit to tell the story better than you did in the first draft. Once you have a product that’s as good as you can make it, then you can worry about a word count.
Chapter length doesn’t matter. Your chapter should be the size that it needs to be to tell your story. A chapter of a story is, quite literally, a chapter. It is a series of events that make up a portion of an overall story. You will know that you need a new chapter when either the setting, point of view or characters change to such a significant degree that the current chapter is over and new one is starting. That can be after three words or after a few thousand. The story dictates how long a chapter should be.
If you’re not sure, one thing that you can do is ignore chapters completely. When you’ve finished and you go through you will find places where a break seems natural in the story.
The lengths of your sentences do a lot of work behind the scenes to express the message that you’re trying to convey. Shorter sentences are sharper with more of a sense of urgency, but also blunt and separate, while longer sentences are slower and more reflective or faster-paced and more energetic. It depends as much on your structure and punctuation as it does on the word count. The whole subject of how to use sentence length is a topic in itself; in summary, you need to make use of varied sentences. If all of your writing is in short sentences it is just as bad as if all of your writing is one sentence paragraphs. When to use either a long sentence or a short one depends on many different factors such as perspective, the scene, the voice and more. Your choice has to be appropriate for the situation.
He brushes his hair out of his eye, clearing his vision and making sure that his aim is true; it’s always true, he could never miss a shot, ever since he was six he never failed to hit his target, it’s always been his gift; getting what he wanted, right now it seems that he wants me dead.
Both of these uses of sentence length could be appropriate to your writing. They convey a very different sense of who the narrator is, what their relationship is with the shooter and what the situation feels like to the narrator. Neither is better than the other, but they would be used in different circumstances.
The number one thing that you do need to remember is that you need to mix up the length of your sentences. It keeps the reader engaged and interested in your story.
Ultimately, size doesn’t matter as much as some people think it does, but it is still important. It has its place but can also do a lot to inhibit your creativity if not considered appropriately. Other than sentence length, it also isn’t something that should really concern you until you enter the editing stage anyway. It simply isn’t relevant how long your story is going to be before you’ve written it: you haven’t written it yet.
© 2017 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.