Word Count and YA Novels

Two weeks ago I wrote about the verb to be plaguing me. Now the monkey on my back is obsessing over my WIP’s (work in progress) word count. Word count has always been a bit of a sore subject for me. I always felt like my short stories came out too long and in my previous two attempts at novel-writing they’ve come up too short.

I’ve spent many hours over the years googling how long a novel should be. Most of them say things like “there is no should” and “however long it takes to tell your story”. I can’t think of anything less helpful. I appreciate the bloggers give number ranges, but this information is often contradictory. Some say a novel is never less than 70,000 words. While others insist on somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 for a first time author. Short of taking my favorite novels and physically counting the words, I’ve been at a loss to answer this question (which lets face it is probably just a tricksy form of procrastination). Until I discovered AR Book Finder, a site that will give you the word count for almost all novels. 

Sloths-Like-Long-NovelsMy current WIP is young adult, so I compiled a somewhat random list of YA novels by debut authors and looked up the book’s word count. Here is what I found (in order from least words to most words).

  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: 49,965 words
  • Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins: 55,665 words
  • The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares: 60,216
  • Looking For Alaska, by John Green: 64,033 words
  • The Key to the Golden Firebird, by Maureen Johnson: 70,380 words
  • Sloppy Firsts, by Megan McCafferty: 76,846 words
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling: 77,508 words
  • The Selection, by Keira Cass: 80,248 words
  • Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins: 81,100 words
  • Cinder, by Marissa Meyer: 87,661 words
  • Divergent, by Veronica Roth: 105,143 words
  • Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer: 118,975 words

So, as expected, there is a huge range. Also for the nit-picky some of these might be considered Middle Grade not YA – but you get the picture. Overall the experience of looking these books up calmed me down about the whole word count thing. My WIP is hovering between 69,000 words and 71,000 words at the moment, which feels like it is on the low-end of the middle.

As I delete truly terrible sentences and add in details to overly stark scenes this word count might change. All I really know at this point is (1) that it will be longer than a one sentence story and shorter than this guy’s 3,500,000 word piece of fan fiction about Nintendo video games, and (2) that I need to get back to editing and stop looking up the word count of books.

What do you think? Do you prefer longer or shorter novels? Are there any books you are going to go look up the word count of?

Quick note on using AR Book Finder: You will be asked to say if you are a parent, teacher, librarian or student. All answers lead to the same thing. I said I was a student, because that felt the least like lying. To get the word count you have to click on the title for the more detailed summary. Enjoy!

55 thoughts on “Word Count and YA Novels

  1. You have discovered my deepest, darkest worries. I am currently in the process of editing my WIP (it’s not YA but I assume some of these #s still apply) and I’m forever freaking out about its length. That said – I hate to cut it down. I know perfectly where the first book ends and the second book begins. So this is the one thought that plagues me after every time read/edit it. VERY happy to know I’m not alone in this.

  2. This is fascinating! A Wrinkle In Time has stuck with me ever since I read it in elementary – hard to believe it’s under 50k.

    And good on you for having made such an enormous dent in your WIP. When did you start it, if you don’t mind me asking? I’m only 6k into mine, and I started it months ago. I just can’t seem to amp up my productivity to a level I want it to be at, for some reason.

    • I was shocked when I saw the word count for Wrinkle in Time. I guess it goes to show a story doesn’t have to be long to have an impact.

      I started thinking about my book in the fall of 2009 and started writing it in the fall of 2010 … I took long periods off (one time I gave it up for 8 months, another time almost a year). I’m now editing I’m on my 3rd or 4th draft I suppose … but I started working full time on my writing in May so that gives me an edge. I don’t write the same amount every day. I’ll have writing jags where I get a ton done, and then big dry spells.

  3. 70K is the guideline, but it really depends on what you plan to do with your work.

    If you plan to submit to an agent/publisher, 70K is a good place to be. I know of some publisher that won’t accept a novel under 70K.

    Publishers put you with a copy editor who will tell you what cut and where to add to your story, but 70K or more is where the book will end up after revisions.

    A lot of editing goes to age-appropriate vocabulary. If you’re writing for younger people, you may be using more extensive vocabulary than your target reading audience without realizing it.

    When you feel the story is right, submit it to an agent. Don’t worry too much about word count. Good agents will tell you when a book is good but too short or long and may even recommend an editor to work with you.

    If the book will be published by you, you can do what you wish.

  4. My short answer: write it as long as you feel like it needs to be, and then get the opinions of test readers to see if they felt like it dragged on. From what I’ve read, 70K is on the long end of YA, but still acceptable. Most likely if you secure an agent and editor and want to go the traditional publishing route, your editor will make you cut a lot out anyway. Not that 70K is too long, but because that’s just what editors do–it’s part of their job to trim the fat.

    My long answer:
    The sources I found (quoting from memory, sorry–don’t have links) said that for a *first-time writer*, a good range for *young adult fiction* is 50-70K, or 55K-75K (a bit of variation between sources). I’ve also seen it repeated that there is more freedom to go long on word counts with science fiction and fantasy, because the world building aspect often necessitates more description. Also, in my own observation, young adult SF and fantasy have gotten increasingly popular in the last decade, so I suspect the propensity for length in those genres may be affecting the general standard in YA fiction, making it more acceptable to go long. If YA is your target audience, the standard word count is definitely different than adult fiction. 100K is a good length for a first-time writer publishing a novel for adults, but very long for YA first novels.

    I think that the shortest and longest books on your list are anomalies. I have read from multiple sources (again, sorry, don’t have them offhand, I can try to post links when I find them) that Stephanie Meyer getting a novel as long as Twilight published as her first book was something of a fluke–if I remember right, apparently someone in the publisher’s office (or editor’s office?) was new and accepted it without checking the word count, or didn’t realize it was so far above average for a first-time YA writer, or something along those lines, and it is very atypical for a first-time YA writer to publish such a long book. The shortest book on your list, A Wrinkle in Time, is directed toward a much younger audience than the rest of the books (that I have read, anyway).

    This is just my personal opinion, and I haven’t looked up the story of how Veronica Roth made herself visible and got Divergent published, but I suspect that the success of the Hunger Games made Roth’s publisher more likely to take such a long first-time YA SF romance. I don’t know if this is a popular opinion, but I think Divergent was very similar to Hunger Games in some ways, so essentially, the market had already been tested.

    Personally, I like both short and long novels. I like books to be as long as they need to be. These are not YA, but as examples two of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy books, two books that I think are absolutely superb: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K Dick, is ~61K words, according to
    http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=194172
    The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, is 148K words, according to
    http://levgrossman.com/2010/05/please-help-me-choose-the-next-magicians-cover/
    In my opinion, both books were as long as they needed to be, and both books succeeded at revealing thought-provoking themes through entertaining plot and character development. I don’t think either were the writers’ first novels, but I think those word counts are an indication that a good novel’s length depends on the story being told.

    I just finished writing my first novel, a YA science fiction romance, and at 58K words I feel like it is an acceptable word count, but definitely on the short end. It is the first book in a series that will end up being 4 or 5 books when I finish it. I’ve drafted book 2, which is 150K words, so I don’t think I can plausibly combine the first two books and try to convince a publisher to take a risk on a 200K-word first novel. In my first book, I think that I have properly conveyed my theme, plot, characters, etc., but I do worry that it will feel a bit lacking–not that the ideas aren’t complete, but just unsatisfactory as an entire story. So…several friends have graciously offered to test read (after I built hype by semi-frequent facebook posts about the progress of that novel that I’ve been writing for years and years….). And I will go with a general consensus of my test readers’ opinions. If everyone thinks the story is great, I’ll probably leave it alone. If a lot of people feel like it’s over too fast, unsatisfactory, ends too fast, or something along those lines, then I will probably try to beef it up before getting an editor.

    My point is to not worry about word count prematurely. Write what you think is a good way to tell your story, and make it fit within the general guidelines (very roughly 50K to 75K for YA first novel). Have people test read it, and if they complain about the length, or lack thereof, then fix it.

    Disclaimer: I’m just one guy. I’ve never published a novel and I write in my spare time. I’m not even an English major.

    • Great advice. I’ve calmed down a bit about word count since I wrote this (except for this month when I’m trying to get to 50K words for NaNoWriMo). Congratulations on finishing your first novel and drafting your second novel.That is so impressive!

      • Cool. I found your blog because I was looking up info on word counts, and didn’t realize at first you had posted this a few months ago. By the time I realized, I’d written most of the reply already and figured it could at least be helpful info for other people who found it.

        Thanks for the congratulations. I’ve been working on these stories on and off for years, so perhaps it’s less a matter of a grand accomplishment, and more a matter of…given enough time, one can do anything :p

      • It’s definitely helpful, both for me and other readers. I think it’s probably something I will stress out about again in the future… I will definitely need the reminder to calm down and focus on the story, not the word count.

      • Do I get a prize for being the only one to notice in a post that was up for months? 😉

        I’m dying over my lack of a capital i on “it,” so we’re even.

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  7. This is pretty much the most amazing thing I’ve learned today. I am ALWAYS obsessing about word count and wondering how long other YA novels (of the trilogy variety) are. Thank you for the link! I shall now spend the rest of my day happily searching book titles. 🙂

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  9. I’m a little late to the game here, since this was posted over a year ago. But I just found this post and it is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for! I just sent my current WIP to have a test copy printed. I’m at roughly 95K on my word count (YA light fantasy), but that made it 608 pages long (in 6×9 paperback)! NOT okay. Divergent is 105K and 487 pages in paperback. So I’m freaking out less about my word count, but more about my formatting since something is not computing. This was extreeeeeemely helpful – thank you!!!

  10. Heck it’s still being helpful this was the exact list I was looking for of word count. I plan to set my word count high so I have lots of editing room 😀 I just moved my project into scrvener and the word count is a great tool to keep me on task!

      • No! Thanks for commenting! I’m glad this is helpful. I just wrote the post I had been looking for myself, but couldn’t find. How are you liking Scrivener? I’ve heard such good things, but haven’t checked it out yet.

      • I literally cannot recommend it enough. There”s a bit of learning curve but SO worth it. I haven’t even really delved into how it will format for me, but from a project perspective it’s everything I had hoped for and more.

  11. I am SO late to this blog, but everyone’s points are extremely interesting and valuable. Thanks so much, Alison.

    In my first novel–not YA–I wasn’t concerned with word count. After three drafts it wound up at 110,000 words, which brings to mind a rather embarrassing moment. I queried an agent saying,”My Literary/Fantasy/Romance novel is completed and polished at 1,110,000 words…” She kindly wrote back saying, “My goodness, that’s quite a long novel Mr. Lee…” So since then I am even more concerned with spell-check than ever 🙂 BTW, even with an apology, the kind lady declined representation.

    I have recently dove (diven???:) into the YA genre. Obsessed with getting the book, the first in a trilogy, to an acceptable length, I checked out two novels to see what these talented writers ended up with in their particular first-of-series. Collins came in with 99,750 with The Hunger Games. Roth came in with 105,143 with Divergent. Okay, good place to start, I thought. I decided on a projected 95,000 words. THAT brought some problems for me. Instead of truly focusing on story; cut or add length later, I began to obsess at the beginning of each writing session over “How many words am I at today?” instead of story. Ie., plot flow. At 90,000 words, and 2/3 of the way through my then novel-in-progress, I stopped, re-read everything, and immediately found an area that was A) slow moving, and B) unessential to forward plot movement. I slashed nearly 20,000 words. Happily, I might add. When I originally wrote those chapters, I was bored myself! So, there is a lot of truth in the statement, “Use as many words as necessary in order to tell your story.” A lot, but not all the truth. Write a book that has a solid plot; one that makes the reader hold his/her breath through each chapter. Not easy.

    It’s been a couple of years since you began this blog, Alison. Curious, how did your book fare? How many words, finally? Do you have a link to it? Whatever, good luck. This is a crowded, VERY competitive business.

    • I think it ended up being 68,000 words … after querying it and getting some lovely feedback-filled rejection letters I put that one in a drawer (which I think is for the best). My new WIP which I hope to be querying before the year is through is much shorter – probably about 61,000. I do think that even though it’s become more acceptable for YA novels to be long, for debut authors sticking to the shorter side might make it a tiny bit easier to break into the market. That’s just my opinion though. Best of luck with your writing!

  12. How late am I?

    I’m writing YA fantasy sort of thing, with a dash of ancient myths thrown in and am sitting at 50K+ I keep reading fantasy should be 60K+ so let’s see if I can get that…

    Good article. 🙂

  13. This is so useful! I’m just over halfway on mine and at 27k words, so it’ll be about the same length as A Wrinkle in Time. It’s such a relief to know that my piece shouldn’t be unusually short, even for YA.

    • Yay! I’m SO glad you found it helpful. It’s something I knew nothing about when I started writing. So many congratulations on being halfway into a project. That is a huge accomplishment!

  14. I just read a blog by Veronica Smith. Her first draft of Divergent 56K words. Later she added about 30K on the advice of her agent. Finally, she added about another 20K words after a book deal with the publisher.

    I am venturing into the world of writing a novel and have been curious about the types of things that have been discussed in this post.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  15. Great post! I’ve been up and down all over the ‘net in hopes to resolve my issue. It took me half a year in 2015 to finish a YA Asian fantasy novel (part one of a duology). It came out to be 141k words, and I’ve whittled it down to 127k, taking out many small scenes that were nice for character development and worldbuilding, but ultimately didn’t contribute much to the central plot. Unfortunately I’ve run into a wall now, because I feel that cutting down anymore will take out essential stuff. It’s tempting to get rid of the word count issue by making it an adult novel, but I want this story to be YA and not adult; the young protagonists and their journeys are more suited for the YA audience. I know sci-fi and fantasy are exceptions to allow more room for word count, but is 127k still too long for YA? Getting it down to 100k seems impossible…

    • I’m definitely no expert and I think YA fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is getting longer and longer. I will say that from what I’ve heard, and my experience as an intern at a literary agency, the preference for debut authors is often the shorter the better … but not at the expense of story.

    • The main reason for this bias against long debuts is that longer books are much more expensive to print. Publishers are much less likely to take the financial risk on an untested writer. I know this isn’t the answer you want to hear.

      • Thank you for replying! I do understand why standards are more strict with debut authors, as opposed to those who are more experienced and successful in the business. Story length and book thickness won’t matter when it’ll certainly sell. I don’t want to present myself to editors as a financial risk, so I’m doing my best to trim down the manuscript to a more acceptable length. It’s very hard, though. I’ve already cut 10% of it, as Stephen King had suggested in “On Writing.” (I’ll likely have to cut more!) What word count range would be acceptable for YA fantasy from a debut author? I’d like a concrete goal to strive for. 🙂

      • As I said before, I’m definitely not expert. I would try to get it under 100k. I’ve heard some agents are biased against anything over 80k, but that’s not everyone and since you’ve already cut so much I think under 100k is probably a great goal. I know it’s hard though.

  16. Oh, no! I am struggling with mine. It is 135,000 on the third draft. Aaaaah! I’m going to have to hack it up some how. I am incapable of writing small. it’s so hard to be brief.

  17. It’s good to know I’m not the only one struggling with this problem! My WIP (YA fantasy) was originally at 90K, but after getting feedback, my critique partners were all telling me that I should break the story into two parts. The problem now is that separating out the first part made it quite short…I had to add scenes and barely made it to 50K words! Also, I had really wanted the first book to end the way it did originally! So now I’m asking myself if I should listen to my critique partners or go with my gut. Decisions, decisions…

    • Yeah, that’s a hard one. I do think shorter is easier, but under 100K seems to be okay for a lot of agents too. My WIP is longer than I intended right now, and I’m trying to figure out what to do about it.

  18. Looked up Stargirl, one of my favourite upper grade YA novels. It sits at 41,000. Im working on the ending of my first YA novel and I’m at 43,000 (was flipping out that it will be too short) Now I feel much better. Thank you for the link to ARBookFinder! What a great tool for a writer!

    • Yeah, I think it’s good to know about word count ranges. But I think it’s also important to realize how many outliers there are. I spend A LOT less time thinking about word count these days. I’ve never heard of an agent being upset something was too short. I think the 100,000+ manuscripts are where some people get nervous. Congrats on your huge writing accomplishments!

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  20. I think I have the opposite problem. I’ve just written a YA novel that is barely over 48.000 words. I’ve been offered representation if I can increase the length. Since My first novel was 78K words, I made sure to cut down the word count on this one… and I’m getting hell for it! I’m trying to look for what may be an acceptable length… but there is no way I can possibly increase the word count to reach these numbers!

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  22. I know this is an older post about word counts. But I find myself more concerned about formatting currently. I have a WIP in its infancy and want to make sure I am putting everything in proper format as I go. I’m using Word to type everything up. I understand that you’re not an expert and can only offer your suggestions and personal preference.
    What formatting do you use for page size, margins, and the like?

    Thanks!
    PS – My WIP will be either YA or adult sci-fi/fantasy. Again, it’s in its infancy still yet. I’ve been working on parts of it for years and finally find myself able to assemble all of the pieces into something coherent. I’m leaning towards YA but it may end up being more adult due to linguistics.

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