The 3 Word Count Rules of Thumb

When I’m in the thick of things, writing as quickly as my fingers allow, I usually don’t have time to calculate how long a chapter needs to be in order to meet a specific word count for my overall manuscript, or how short it can be without seeming too short. Even if I did, I’m not sure I would follow those guidelines. Just the same, I find it helps to have certain numbers in mind while writing, and the following are the ones I use almost daily.

  1. 250 words, the industry estimate for number of words per page on an average manuscript. I usually use this after I’ve finished a novel, to figure out approximately how many pages it will be, based on word count. The other use is to determine the minimum length for a chapter—I tend to say at least 750 words, since fewer than three pages makes me feel somewhat cheated as a reader.
  2. 60,000 words, a good size for just about any manuscript. Using the 250 rule of thumb, this translates to 240 pages, which seems to be about average. Also, no matter what genre, 60,000 words seems to be well within expectations. For YA it might be a little on the longer side (although recently, YA fiction has been trending toward longer novels), and for mysteries 60,000 words is slightly less than average.
  3. 2,000 words & 30 chapters. This is what I usually shoot for when it comes to my novels, since, ideally, it would result in a 60,000 word manuscript. Of course, I usually end up around five or six thousand words over or under, and a few chapters north of 30, but the 2/30 rule is my usual goal.

Keep in mind, these are only guidelines. No publishers will deny a manuscript because you were a few words short of 60,000—or a few hundred, or even a few thousand—and what matters most is that the story you tell is told well, however long that takes. Authors like Rowling and Tolkien have shown that, especially in the realm of speculative fiction, the top limit on word count can be quite high. On the lower end, Jack London and Paulsen have shown that books under 200 pages can find great success as well.

My question for anyone reading this is what rule of thumb do you find yourself sticking to while writing? Or do you avoid such things altogether?

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