Just what have you written?


You’ve spent time and effort writing your masterpiece and then you discover that it’s got (how many?) words, so now you have to decide what it actually is.

100 Words Exactly – Drabble?
A drabble is a very short work of fiction that (not including the title) is exactly 100 words long.
Drabble contests are held where the contestants have to write exactly the 100 words in a specific amount of time and on a specific theme.
The idea came from the UK Science Fiction community in the 1980s and apparently they got the idea from Monty Python’s 1971 Big Red Book of humour which contained material from the BBC television series.

Samples include
‘The Turning Point’ by Isaac Asimov
‘Happiness and Suffering, the Triumph of La Vie over Death’ by Brian Aldiss

100 – 500 Words – Flash Fiction?
Usually based on a maximum of 500 words, although sometimes the upper limit is set at 1,000 words.
The term ‘Flash Fiction’ is usually attributed to the 1992 anthology, ‘Flash Fiction: Seventy two very short stories, although the upper limit in the book is 750 words.
The definition was due to the fact that a story would fit on two facing pages of a digest sized magazine.
The Chinese sometimes call it a ‘smoke long’, as it should be read before the reader could finish smoking a cigarette.
Of course there are other names for it including, micro fiction, sudden fiction, short short story and postcard fiction.

Samples include works by H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Anton Chekhov, and Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway was a pioneer of this form of writing although it is disputed whether or not ‘For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn’ can be actually termed as flash fiction, although it is widely accepted as the shortest story ever told.

1,000 – 7,500 Words – Short Story?
So just how short is a short story?
The number of words seems to be no less than 1,000 up to a maximum of 7,500 – according to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – to qualify; but it’s the old ‘how long is a ball of string?’ theory and if an author decides that 12,500 words is a short story, then that’s what it is.
The usual accepted definition is a story that can be read comfortably at one sitting.

Samples include
‘The Body’ by Stephen King
‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by Washington Irving
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ by James Thurber.

7,500 – 17,500 Words – Novelette?
More letters in the word but shorter than a novella? Go figure…
There are two major awards for writing novelettes. ‘The Hugo Award for Best Novelette’ was first presented in 1955 and is arguably the best known recognition for this type of writing, closely followed by ‘The Nebula Award for Best Novelette’ which was first presented in 1966.

Samples include:
‘The Bicentennial Man’ by Isaac Asimov 1977 (Hugo winner)
‘Myths of the Near Future’ by J. G. Ballard 1982 (Nebula winner).

17,500 – 40,000 Words – Novella
Novellas are usually not divided into chapters and instead white space is used to divide the sections.
Due to the word restrictions, the stories usually lack the subplots that the traditional novel has.

Samples include
‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck
‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell (approx 30,000 words)
‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens (approx 28,500 words)
‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess
‘The Time Machine’ by H. G. Wells.

40,000 – 100,000 Words – Novel?
Now here is where it really gets tricky as 40,000 words doesn’t sound a lot, but ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury has only 46,118 words and it’s widely considered to be his best ‘novel’.
Personally speaking, I would consider anything less than 60,000 words to be too short to be considered a novel, but the standards weren’t set by me. It’s generally considered that 80,000 – 90,000 words is the magic number.
For authors out there looking to get published in book form and not an eBook, the cost of printing has to be taken into consideration as there isn’t much difference in cost price to get an 80k novel printed compared to a 40k novel and each work usually takes the same amount of effort going into the publicity.

Some examples of novels have surprising word counts as shown below.
58,800 Words – ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. (The novel known best by its lack of punctuation)
60,000 Words – ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding
61,500 Words – ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells
73,000 Words – ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J. D. Salinger
79,500 Words – ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ by J. K. Rowling
89,000 Words – ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell
95,000 Words – ‘The Hobbitt’ by J. R. R. Tolkien
99,000 Words – ‘Complicity’ by Iain Banks
99,200 Words – ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

100,000+ words – Epics
Now this is the section that well known authors have all to themselves. If they are established and want to publish a 150,000+ novel, then that’s okay. They will be taken by the hand to collect their advance in person, but for a new author, unless nepotism comes into play, you can forget about it.

Well known epics include:
107,000 Words – ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte
109,500 Words – ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain
135,000 Words – ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens
169,500 Words – ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinback
174,000 Words – ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller
203,500 Words – ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ by J. K. Rowling

Just plain too long. (IMHO)
531,000 Words – ‘Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo
587,200 Words – ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy

And finally a Guinness World Record holder coming in at 1,200,000 Words – ‘In Search of Lost Time’ by Marcel Proust

Please remember that the word counts are only approximate, so if you read one and count the words and find 12 extra words, don’t call me.

When preparing your work for publication, please use the guidelines given by the publisher you intend to send your manuscript too.


What about the Bible I hear (some of) you ask; well, the Old and New combined works out at around 788,000 words in the King James version, but let’s face it, it shouldn’t be considered a novel – should it??

4 thoughts on “Just what have you written?

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