Tag Archives: word count

A Matter of Size

An English elephant in Norwich, at the Norwich Body Art Festival

One of the questions most frequently asked in creative writing classes is “how long is a novel/play/short story/screenplay?” And, as is often the case in creative writing, the answer is that there are no rules but… there kind of are.

There is not an official cut off word count for any of the above literary forms but the publishing industry has generally accepted average lengths. Be alive to the fact that just because your word count has hit the “magic number”, it does not follow that you are finished. Apart from the fact you’ll be lobbing off at least a third in edits, you also need be sure that you have brought all the strands of your story to satisfactory conclusion, have made your point and your character has undergone some sort of change / journey / learning arc in the process. Otherwise, to paraphrase Truman Capote, your’re just typing.

What follows is a rough guide/ballpark figure for each literary form:


The average commercial novel is 78,000 words in length; this roughly amounts to 300 A4 pages in double spaced twelve-point font. However, a novel can be anything from 45,000 words onwards. A book between 20,000 – 45,000 is usually marketed as a “novella”.

 Short Story

Traditionally, a short story is meant to be read in one sitting. Normally, this narrative form is quite pointed in its message, involves a single setting and few characters. A short story can be anything from 1,000-20,000 words.Writing short stories is a good way of building up your story telling skills, honing your craft as a writer and amassing a writing portfolio. Also, the short story is the literary form favoured by writing competitions. Such competitions usually look for stories in the 2,000-5,000 word bracket.

Flash Fiction

This is the short story’s kid brother. Somewhat akin to the Haiku, a flash fiction story often aims to capture a fleeting moment. It can be any thing between 100-1,000 words. Flash fiction is becoming very popular in competitions these days. Personally, I think this may be to save reading time for judges.


The standard “Hollywood” screenplay is 90 minutes long. Given the rule of thumb that one page equals one minute of movie, you should be aiming for a90-page long screen play. Obviously, this is an approximation.


Likewise, the page per minute rule applies here too. Bear in mind the slot your are aiming for. commercial TV and radio stations will include advert breaks in their schedule – so a half hour comedy show might in fact be only 22 minutes long etc… If you have a slot in mind, time the duration of the actual show (excluding theme music and commercial breaks.)


The page per minute rule can roughly be applied to stage plays too. If a stage play were to last an hour and a half, it should be 20,000 words long and span 90 pages.


A poem can be as short or as long as you like. A  haiku is traditionally 17 syllables over three line. The Iliad is 25,000 lines long. For the try outs, however, you might aim for two or three verses.

Write a Novel in 6months

Novel this way; Go for it!

How long does it take to write a novel?

When I was a teen, my favourite novel was Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan which the young Frenchwoman supposedly wrote in a three week sitting. However, I’m sure that legend is somewhat misleading. Though Sagan may have got the initial splurge down on paper in three weeks, it probably took many months of overhaul to bring to publishable standard.

Everyone writes differently. Everyone has their own approach. Some may write 2,000 words a day but may only be able to use about 200 of them come editing stage. Others might get 100 down, but they’ll be good, solid words you can bring forward. The former write from the outside in, the latter move slowly from the inside out.

‘Outsiders’ write manically, getting the story and the words on page. They’ll get a surplus of words on paper relatively quickly and will then spend the next six months to a year editing, rewriting, crafting, pruning and shaping. ‘Insiders’ tend to be methodical planners. They have a very clear idea of where they are going with their novel before they sit to write a single word and then they revise every sentence as they go. This method is quite painstaking, however the writer will not have much of an editing stage as they are, essentially, editing as they go. Therefore, it is hard to say how long it takes to write a novel. That very much depends on your approach.

The Six-Month Challenge

Having said that, I recently read about a ‘six-month’ challenge and I think it is a good regime for beginners. The idea is that you give yourself six months to write 80,000 words. You need to commit to writing 500 words every day. This figure is roughly a page of text, double spaced in 12 point Times New Roman font. Give yourself 45 minutes (at least) per day to deliver. Do not allow internet/phone/family/any distractions to interfere with this time. You may say that you are too busy but we can all find 45 minutes if we try. Get up 45 minutes early, skip your daily soap opera, cut down on your web-surfing etc… You’ll find the time if you want to. By the end of six months, you should have 80,000 words to spend the next six months polishing and editing. I am seriously thinking of doing the ‘six-month challenge’, to work on an idea I’ve had for a novel for a while.

I’m thinking of starting on October 1st. Would any of you be interested in joining me in this exercise. The team spirit would carry us all forward and would keep us focused.

Honk if you’re in!