If you’re a fiction writer, then sooner or later you’re going to run into the issue of how to classify your work. Is it a short story? A novella? A full-blown novel?

And just how many words are in a novel, anyway?

That’s a hard question with no clear-cut answer, but if you want a very general rule of thumb, you might look to the folks at National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  Every November, thousands of writers compete to write a novel in 30 days, and you “win” NaNoWriMo if you can finish a 50,000-word rough draft by the end of the month.

So there you have it — a novel has a minimum of 50,000 words.

Except that heuristic doesn’t hold in all cases, no matter how many NaNoWriMoers — me among them — might be chagrined to hear the news.

And the crowdsourced answer to the lower limit on word count for a novel is 40,000, not 50,000.

The truth is, word count depends on many factors, not the least of which is genre. But before we dig in, let’s take a moment to think about …

Why Does Word Count Matter?

In general, I subscribe to the philosophy that a story should be as long as it needs to be, but no longer, in order to be told fully. Don’t pad your book just to make it longer, and don’t hack words and chapters just to make it shorter.

Storytelling is an art, and you can’t — or shouldn’t — box it in.

But art is only (about) half of the book business, with the other half being actual business. Most authors want to sell their work at some point, and all publishers want to sell books. In order to do that on a consistent basis, they need to heed the desires of their target audiences.

Aside from learning over the years what types of books appeal to what types of readers, publishers have also learned what sorts of expectations these readers have.

Stephen King fans, for example, have come to expect not only dark and soul-jarring themes and prose but also piles and piles of words. Some of his books check in at over 1000 pages, and most of them find second lives as doorstops and paperweights after they’ve been read into dog-eared oblivion. His norm is something like 180,000 words per novel.

King does write short stories, and he’s a master in that form, too, but if he started pumping out mere-mortal novels of 80,000 words, the masses would not be thrilled. We expect huge, epic stories from King, and anything less would leave us hungry.

The same goes for other authors, too, and for other genres of writing. Readers know what we like, and if our expectations aren’t met, we’ll stop buying.

Publishers know that, and so do smart self-publishing authors.

So How Many Words Are in a Novel?

If you’re not too concerned about commercial success or meeting reader expectations, then anything over a certain threshold can be considered a novel. What’s that threshold?

Well, the  Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America defines the different broad categories as:

  1.  Short Story: less than 7,500 words;
  2.  Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;
  3.  Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words;
  4.  Novel: 40,000 words or more.

Many folks would also add another category, Flash Fiction, for works less than 2000 words or so.

This is a good, solid breakdown that fits in most cases, at least for the lower end of the scale. But even here, we’re dealing specifically with Science Fiction and Fantasy, and readers in other genres might not be quick to accept the 40,000-word categorization of “novel.”

To help authors tune their work to the genres they’re targeting, the Manuscript Appraisal Agency has put together some general guidelines for novel length:

  • Adult Fiction: 80,000-100,000 words
  • Science and Fantasy Fiction: 90,000-120,000 words (which obviously clashes with the SFFWA’s lower limit of 40,000 words)
  • Romance: 50,000 words
  • Historical Fiction: about 100,000 words
  • Crime/Mystery/Thriller/Horror Fiction: 70,000-90,000 words
  • Young Adult Fiction: 50,000-80,0000 words

So you can see that there is a wide range of typical novel lengths, and each word-length definition appeals to the fans of that particular genre.

But What If Your Novel Is Not Typical?

What happens, then, if your SciFi novel lands at 51,286 words, but you’ve told your story perfectly. Should you add more to it just to try to get it into the “normal” range for the genre?

Not necessarily.

I’m still a big fan of stories being the length they need to be, but you have to realize you may encounter resistance from potential readers. You might have to target a lower price point than other SciFi books, or you could use your novel as a free introduction to your work.

Or, you could just put it out there and see what happens.

The other option is to take into consideration your target market while you’re planning your book and expand or contract your concept at the outline stage if necessary. That opens up a whole other discussion about whether you should “write to market,” but it’s at least worth consideration.

So … how many words are in a novel?

Definitely 81,256 words.