Story Length Guidelines and Terminology

Internet and electronic publications are less constricted by story length than print publications are, so you will often find their guidelines for length are fairly broad. Some may specify only the minimum or maximum word count.

Terminology for Short Stories

Many contests are for shorter stories rather than novel or novella-length works. The term “Flash Fiction” applies generally to stories of around 1,000 words, but is often applied to anything between 200 and 2,000 words. Lately in many cases, the term Flash Fiction has incorporated the “Short-short story” (500-2,000 words) guideline and this term may begin to fall away.

A “Short Story” is usually considered to be between 1,000 and 7,500 words. In years past “Novellette” took the 7,500 to 15,000 word slot and a “Novella” was between 15,000 and 40,000 words. However, many publications will specify guidelines for “short stories up to 15,000”, and the term “novelette” may be falling away also.

Guidelines for Longer Works

Novellas were quite popular in the first half of the twentieth century and writers didn’t risk an agent or publisher’s wrath by producing a book of only 40,000 words. Later, as publishers organised special rates with printers for standard length books, works falling outside the standard were less likely to be accepted until they’d been rewritten to suit the specifications (or if the success of the author meant the investment was worth the extra printing costs).

Now, though, the publishing industry is slowly changing again, with the advancement of Print on Demand technology. It is possible that book length will be less important than it has been as books are printed as the orders come in, rather than being a risky investment in thousands of copies that may or may not sell.

The standard length for commercial fiction and genre novels is 100,000 words. Literary fiction has more leeway and can range from 60,000 words to 150,000 words, and Fantasy has also broken out of the standard by allowing epic tomes of 200,000 words for just one book in a series. It stands to reason that to aim for the 100,000 word mark when you start writing or when you’re editing your novel will give agents and publishers one less thing to count against you when considering your submission.

Even if you’re writing fantasy, work on the principle of being able to produce more words when the publisher asks for them rather than enthusiastically presenting everything up front. Publishers take on less risk with standalone works and an author who is prepared to be flexible about whether or not his books fit into a series is a lot more attractive. If the first book is a failure and the others can stand as separate and different books, something can still be salvaged. If the first is a success, the others can more safely be presented as a continuing series.

This article was first published on BellaOnline in December 2006. © Elsa Neal

For more help with fiction guidelines and other aspects of writing, try:

Fiction : The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published by Michael Seidman

Fiction Writing Demystified : Techniques That Will Make You a More Successful Writer by Thomas B. Sawyer

From Pitch to Publication : Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Novel Published by Carole Blake