How Many Words in a Novel (Novella, Short Story)

Novel RequirementsIs there no better feeling than finishing a writing assignment? Once a piece is finished, it sections off a part of our lives and we can nail it to our mental Hall of Accomplishments. That way, all who see our work know that this is a representation of our efforts and mental struggles.

Writing a book is like throwing down a gauntlet of sorts. Not only does it provide you the recognition amongst your peers and separates you from the pack of wannabe’s (*throws scarf*), but you actually have a finished tome out in the universe. You can now check off that item from your bucket list and work on those skydiving goals, right?

Easier said than done, you say. Writing a book—whether it’s a how-to guide or a collection of short stories, is a time-consuming effort full of blood, sweat, and toil. It’s weird, but a lot of writers imagine that if they “just had the time” to work on a novel, they could finish it and join the pantheon of literary notables.

Well, that may be the popular notion, but I offer a contrary opinion: rather than just consider all of the mental hurdles that are involved in creating a cohesive piece of work, I’m here to present a question to all of you:

How long does it take to actually write something?

If you ask me (and you didn’t), the answer to this question lies in the ability to do a few easy calculations.

Don’t believe me? Read on…

The Cold, Hard Math

While we’ve covered this topic before in this article, it certainly bears repeating: you can calculate your maximum per-hour rates for your typing ability (I’m assuming you’re not still using an inkwell and quill, m’lord?) as a metric to gauge a minimum amount of time for creating a written work.

How do we do this?

1) First, determine the amount of words-per-minute that you can type. Your WPM. For me, it’s 65 words a minute.
2) Second, multiply your WPM by 60 to find your words-per-hour, your WPH. 65 WPM x 60 = 3,900 WPH

Your results may vary, but this number is the baseline that you can establish if your writing abilities are firing on all cylinders (read Stop Procrastinating to learn how you can make this happen). It is an unrealistic number, especially because it doesn’t consider fatigue, creative decisions, bathroom breaks, and so forth. However, it does establish a number that you couldn’t possibly exceed unless you employed alternative methods, like outsourcing your writing.

How Long Is It Gonna Take?

Ok, so what’s the point of all this math?

Once you’ve determined your own maximum WPH, you can start comparing it to the minimum requirements to be considered a type of literature. Let’s look at the breakdown of writing projects.

How many words do those great works of literature actually require?

  • Short stories: 1,500 to 30,000 [Edgar Allen Poe’s The House of Usher is ~7,500 words]
  • Novellas: 30,000 to 50,000 [Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is ~38,000 words]
  • Novels: 50,000 and upwards [Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer ~106,000 words]

Let’s start by taking Heart of Darkness as an example. By dividing 38,000 by my max WPH, the minimum time investment it would take for me to write it would be approximately 9 ¾ hours. Not too shabby. To create our own Tropic of Cancer, I’d have to spend a little over 27 hours cranking out word after word.

Again, those are the minimum time investments; they don’t include revisions, time spent fleshing out characters, editing, formatting, and so forth. Heck, it doesn’t even include all of your accumulated life experiences needed to lead us down that river to a crazed Colonel Kurtz, nor does factor in running around with prostitutes and literati in France like ‘ol pervy Henry.

Realistic Estimates?

Of course, these examples and calculations shouldn’t be recognized as stringent examples, but more as guidelines to your personal involvement. I’m not suggesting that a novel can be written in a day; far from it, actually. Can one really quantify how long it takes for revisions of “getting it right”? I don’t think so.

Heck, even just proofreading can be a time-intensive endeavor, considering that most people can only read 200 words per minute. For Tropic of Cancer, that’s an additional 9 hours of copyediting, which doesn’t count correcting typos or making sure the story is somewhat coherent (or as coherent as Henry Miller makes his novels).

* * *

Ok, so what’s the point of all these inconclusive and abstract numbers?

With this knowledge of the minimum requirements, you can make a realistic timeframe for whatever literary pursuit you happen to engage in. You simply cannot write any quicker than this, so expect to plop in front of your laptop at least this long. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it also seems that unless you are writing exclusively short stories, your literary career won’t be an overnight sensation either.

*Setting your price per word is also closely tied to how many words you can write per minute. Clients like to pay per word or per piece, so undercutting the next guy could simply be a case of writing faster than him. To learn more about how you can set the right price as a freelancer, read The Writers’ Companion.

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