Writing: Word Count

Recently, on Twitter, I randomly asked a question of curiosity to my fellow serial writers. What’s your word count per chapter? It led to quite an interesting discussion, and I ended up inspired to write a post about the subject.

Word count is one of those things you don’t really think about. But after experiencing with writing serial novels on JukePop, and with my first try at self-publishing, I realized how important it is a thing to think about, especially during the editing process. Of course, different writers are bound to have different opinions on the issue, but it’s still something to really consider, not just from a writing point, but also readability and marketing point as well.

So I decided to share my thoughts on it. Of course, there will be plugs of the authors who contributed to the conversation. So yeah, read on!

Around 5,000

Let’s start with the highest word count suggested. Laurie Blake (@LaurieJBlake), author of The Schism series, is the only one who placed 5,000 words as around his sweet spot.

I’ve always had a little thing against high word count per chapter. This is something that works for short stories because you are telling a complete tale. For something like a chapter-by-chapter book or serial, 5k is hard to grasp for attention.

Longer chapters are harder to build up, and easier to lose interest in before the next break. And it doesn’t allow as well pack a storytelling tool for a long novel. Even if one is confident in their story’s ability to hook, it’s not something for everyone.

Laurie stated that his reading speed is about 5k per 15 minute. Mine is around 2k. If you’re looking at publishing a book that is average in chapter length, you’re looking at about 200,000 words for 40 chapters if 5k is your average. That’s 25 hours of reading for me. Say I read 1 hour a day. That’s 25 days to finish 1 book, and I find that way too long. Of course, if you were reading at the speed of Laurie, you’d finished it in 10 hours, which is reasonable. But not everyone will read at that speed or length, and not everyone wants to.

On the plus side, whoever reads 5k worth of a chapter is definitely hardcore, and you won’t have to worry about losing them as a reader any time soon.

2,500-4,000

This is the average of a regular, non-serialized novel chapter length. You’re able to read it in a binge sitting, where you clear multiple chapters in one go. It’s in the length of being long enough that each chapter holds its own story, but short enough where you could still see the end of the chapter before you get off the bus.

Joseph Waters (@jawatersauthor), author of Lyncia and Syncpoint, noted this as his preferred length for novel writing. And I agree that for novels, this would be the best length.

The only downside to this is that your readers will usually be limited to the avid ones. Those who have been reading their whole lives and are capable of eating up a novel within a week. There’s the chance to alienate newer readers, people who go at a reading speed lower than even I.

Personally, I feel that if someone takes more than 30 minutes to finish 1 chapter of your story, that person would likely not become part of your permanent readership. I do however, get the love for this length. It gives an author sufficient time to explore while reaching the majority audience, and quite a few authors I know also write in this range.

1,500-2,500

This is the length in which I work with for most of my chapters, and my personal preference when it comes to writing serialized stories. I treat serial fiction like I do with mangas, in that if I take more than 10 minutes to go through 1 chapter, I am doing something terribly wrong.

Many of JP’s Top 30 writers (excluding me, cause I suck) seems to take this as their length of choice as well.

M. Howalt of Aconitum (@mhowalt)
Kevin Boyer of Dread Lord Bob (@SmilingWorg)
K R Williams of Freedom’s Gate (@freekitderore)
N.C. Gossner of Arthur (@Author_N_C)
Jennifer Flath of The Black Pearl (@JennSnork)
Kathy Joy of The Brotherhood (@Kathy_H_Joy)
Ryan Watt of Flocked (@GuildofFeathers)

Now, if you’ve ever read their works, you’ll notice that most of these guys did not just scratch Top 30 like 139: In Evening did. No. They went to the Top 30, sat there, and rubbed their butts all over the throne until they farted so hard they flew away.

My theory for this goes back to that manga comparison I make. Whenever I find a new manga I am interested in, and that manga has been in serialization for a long time, I would usually take out a day or two just to binge through 15 plus volumes to catch up to the present.

This works because a single chapter in a manga will take at most 10 minutes to go through. That’s 6 chapters an hour, 60 chapters a day, minimum. I can’t do that if it takes me 20-30 minutes to read a chapter.

If you can binge, you get more votes. If you get more votes, you get more readers. You get more readers, you get more binging, and the cycle goes on.

In Conclusion

While there are merits to each length, for serial writing, I feel it is best to stick to the 1,500-2,500 range. The 3-4k range is good for traditional books and climax chapters, and decent for serials. And while 5,000 is really high, I can see it in the setting of grand epics, where the end product of the book can be used as foundation for a skyscraper, after using every single known word in the English language at least once.

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12 Comments

  1. I tend to go by scenes rather than chapters, and I average about 1000 words per scene. The chapter breaks are about the last thing I create. I do set up in 3-4 parts, but the chapters are put in after I’ve done my editing/shifting around/etc.

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    1. That’s an interesting way to do it. Would make writing a more manageable thing, especially if there’s a lot of plot points to cover per chapter.

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  2. Great observations! I’m usually between 2K and 2.5K with my serials. Sometimes a little more and I think I’ve been below 2K twice. I don’t mind reading longer or shorter chapters, but above 5K gets a little long for a web serial for me, and below 1K often doesn’t feel like it gets enough development/plot for me.
    Thank you for the shoutout, too.

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    1. No problem! Credits go where credits due, of course.

      I’ve said this before, but I personally like your pacing. Out of all that I’ve read on JP, yours is the most even, I dare say. And it’s very good to just sit and chill with for an hour.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks so much! There’s a lot I want to say with my writing, but I feel that it’s important to say it in a way that’s pleasant to read as well, so that means a lot to me. 🙂

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  3. It’s not something I ever really thought of until I started submitting stories to Jukepop. Because of the way it is formatted into a narrow line of text, and there is no way to bookmark, a high word count can be a barrier. But it’s also made me think of the many books that I read and I think this can apply without us realising. I’ve read books with super long chapters (Blue Moon Rising by Simon Green is only like 10 chapters long but each chapter is more like an act and they can be hundreds of pages long) I have read some books where the chapters are inconsistent – based more on the scenes than a fixed word count, where one chapter was about 20 pages but another was just a paragraph, and somehow that worked well, but I did get bogged down at the end when the chapters seemed to go on forever (Unfortunately I can’t remember what the book was!).

    That makes me wonder whether chapter length not only affects any kind of story – short, novella or full Novel and of course the serial, but also where in the story the long and short chapters are. I mean what works best? Short snappy chapters at the beginning, or longer ones to establish character and scene etc? And what about the middle and end?

    This post has really made me think not only about my serial work but on my other creative works. I can see that there is definitely some correlation based on my own reading experiences and serial writing Very thought provoking!

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  4. In an online medium that uses page-changes, navigation changes, or some manner of loading change that requires time between the chapters, word-count means a lot more for sure. I feel like books have the capability of using chapters much more creatively in that it breaks up scenes but won’t necessarily affect a reader’s speed or flow of enjoying the story.

    This makes me think that the page-flipping style of digital reading, similar to a Kindle’s presentation, is probably still best. If JukePop, for instance, switched to a page-flipping, bookmarkable format it might change up the dynamics of reading altogether on that site.

    Until such a change, I think you’ve got it right on the sweet spot for JukePop in particular. 1.5 – 2.5k is probably the best idea. Nice write-up.

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    1. Hm…never thought of it like that before. That’s interesting, and makes a lot of sense. When flipping through pages, you don’t get a scrollbar on the side telling you how much more of the chapter is left to read. Personally, when I see a small scroll bar, I get a little scared at the length. On a page flip though, you’re reading in bite size pieces per page. Nice observation!

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  5. Great article! I have to say, I usually don’t think too much of word count when writing (since I usually write my “chapters” by hand before typing). I do think of, when writing serial fiction, format and time management.

    Being that people will usually read my serials on their computer or phone or tablet, I don’t want people scrolling endlessly through one of my chapters and eventually getting bored with the serial as a whole. I try to keep it short (just enough to lay out everything that I feel I need to) and sweet, leaving just enough towards the end to keep the reader waiting till the next chapter.

    But now that I think about it, when typing from my handwritten pages, if the word count exceeds well past 2,000, then that’s when I start getting a bit nervous…so I guess layout of an “episode” relies on the experience you want the reader to get (I hope that last part makes sense).

    Oh, and don’t say you suck! What I’ve read of the 139 trilogy was nothing short of incredible… 🙂

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    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I guess people just have an innate instinct when word count exceeds their limit. Good way to go about on writing for some, is to feel it getting to dragged out I guess.

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