Many of my readers are female. And they are obsessed by one thing.
They can’t stop thinking about it. They can’t stop talking about it. And they certainly can’t enter into something without the full lowdown on what to expect.
That’s right. When it comes to writing, what seems to matter most is how big it is.
I’ve noticed over my career how many writers seem to care more about word count than the value of those words. Many won’t even put pen to paper unless they know how long their book should be. I’ve seen countless unresolved forum discussions on the perfect length of a blog post. And undoubtedly, it stops even savvy writers from publishing brilliant pieces of work.
But the tide is turning on a society fixated with size, to one steered instead by substance.
What you do with it that counts
Because, please. Everybody knows it’s not size that matters, but what you do with it that counts.
Now, of course, if someone’s expecting an encyclopaedia, they won’t be satisfied with a flimsy pamphlet. But within reason, let me assure you, your non-fiction book can be whatever length you like.
What’s most important is that you:
- say all you need to say
- write it clearly and logically so the reader can follow the message
- avoid repetition, except for appropriate reiteration and effect
- keep it as tight as possible
- beware of omissions
- keep it as specific as possible
- fulfil the reader’s expectations
- edit your piece at the end of writing it
- proofread your piece at the end of editing it
And while doing all these things will impact the word count by cutting words out and adding words in, writing to ‘hit a word count target’ is not self-expression done smart.
A guide, not a goal
Word count should always be just a guide, not a rigid goal. It’s a helpful measure in the publishing world because of our commercial need to wrap meaning around statistics on cost, buyer behaviour, marketing and so on. You’ll always get people analysing the numbers and seeing what length performs best. But are you writing to order?
Or are you writing because you’ve got something to say?
A message, a story, an experience you learned from that you want to pass on to other people in the same place you were.
Word count is irrelevant if we get so hung up on it that we never start writing.
Researching what others have to say on the subject, the consensus is that non-fiction books vary widely in length in comparison to fiction. From experience and reading around the internet, you can take this as a guide.
< 25,000 words – first introductory or niche book (digital)
< 50,000 words – more substantial book (digital)
40,000+ words – suitable for printing
90,000+ words – consider splitting into more than one print book
Keep it under 100,000 words no matter what!
I tend to find that if you’re writing a book for digital publication only, readers have a lower attention span and tolerance reading on screen. For that reason, the 25,000 mark is fine for a helpful short. 20,000 even. At the other end, readers with busy lives who just want something they can dip into or devour quickly don’t want a PDF of hundreds of pages, so consider 50,000 a cap for your digital book if you’re trying to write something super accessible.
In print, anything under 40,000 is going to feel pretty slim in your hands, so upwards of that will translate into a physical book product.
If you’re publishing in print and digital, consider the overlapping and competing issues above.
And when it comes to making the decision on how long to aim for, there’s so much more to it than ‘how long should my book be?’ and getting a standard answer. (In fact, if someone does have a standard answer for you, they don’t know what they’re talking about.)
Here are some other aspects to take into account:
- what your audience has indicated it wants
- what the book is about
- how it will be used
- where it would be read
- whether the reader goes through cover to cover, or needs to pause and ‘do the work’ on the way through
- other resources, worksheets, notes included
- whether the book relates to other books in a series
It’s easy to get carried away with hitting a certain number, because writing is hard to measure by what really matters. I mean, how do you quantify how much emotion there is, or whether the content is useful, interesting, relateable?
Word count is also a reassuring indication of progress. When you’re sitting at your machine day in day out, watching the word count grow is a comfort that you’re getting somewhere. But it can be a false indicator. Why? Because padding.
There’s nothing worse (or more obvious) to a reader than words for the sake of words. Fluff kills your book. So do yourself and your reader a great big favour, and just say what needs to be said. No more. No less.