The Writer’s Journey is a column dedicated to different styles of writing and the exploration of one writer’s path to publication.

Written by Samantha House

Today’s article, the third in our series on writing styles, concerns two of the most cherished forms of writing which also happen to be a couple of the longest forms: novels and novellas. As in the previous two entries for the series, Fiction and Non-Fiction and Literature vs. Commercial Non-Fiction, we’ll learn how to define the two styles first, and then we’ll take a slightly closer look at why word count is so important.  

Since the Cambridge Dictionary defines a novel as ‘a long printed story about imaginary characters and events,’ and a novella, simply put, as ‘a short novel,’  we can safely assume the two have a number of points in common including the fact, that both are usually printed as books (or e-books in the greener world we’re all attempting to build). Those definitions offer little help, however, in differentiating between the two forms, though, so let’s examine those more closely.

A Novel Length

This might not need saying, but novels are long because of the multiple and complex plots and characters inherent in their stories. The near-limitless word count of novel-writing allows an author to more thoroughly explore the themes of their story-line while also creating space for in-depth character development, two elements of novels which overwhelmingly determine its ability to connect with a target audience.

For example, the word count of a typical novel can be as short as 55,000 words, or they can run into the hundreds of thousands like War and Peace, which puts to use a whopping 587,287 words!

Knowing which genre your writing falls under is important, because while each genre varies slightly according to what is accepted as the “norm” for word limits, they’re fairly common guidelines that even publishers use. Check them out:

Young Adult: 55,000 – 90,000
Romance: 70,000 – 100,000
Mystery/Thriller: 80,000 – 110,000
Literary Fiction: 80,000 – 110,000
Sci-Fi/Fantasy: 80,000 – 120,000
Historical Fiction: 110,000 – 150,000

Remember, though, that like War and Peace, every guideline has exceptions:they’re good to keep in mind especially if you’re just starting out, but some publishers will reject work based on word count be it too high or too low, so it’s best to be prepared..

Novellas: Just a Short Novel?

Animal Farm by George Orwell
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

How would you classify these well-known tales? Novel or novella?

Novellas are similar to novels in that they cover a number of genres and vary in length. Many writers contend what actually constitutes a novella, though, because neither category has a set word count.
The expectation is simply that a novella be longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.

A quick Bing search suggests writing 20,000-40,000 words for a novella, but one of many problems with this guideline is the “middle grade genre” (a classification of books which caters to older children and pre-teens) where the general word count is roughly 20,000-55,000. This count blurs those defining lines, which means it’s entirely possible for a novella to also be considered a middle grade fiction novel. And so the arguments begin.

Going back to the classics above, then, let’s look at their word counts.

Animal Farm – 29,060 words
Of Mice and Men – 29,572 words
A Christmas Carol – 12,162 words

As you can see, even though these are some of humanity’s best-known tales and are often confused as novels, they are, in fact, not: they are novellas which is apparent from their word count.

If you’re still struggling with how to differentiate the two forms, just keep in mind that a novella does not have the word count for complex plots and character development that a novel has. As such, it comes down to the story and how you tell it: if you want to go into great detail regarding characters and plot points, you’ll be writing a novel, but if you don’t want to explore a theme too much or have a character-driven story-line, then a novella is the way to go.

Hopefully this article has cleared up any confusion surrounding these two celebrated forms of writing. In the next article, we discuss short stories and flash fiction – stories told with an emphasis on brevity – so if all that talk of word counts in the tens-to-hundreds of thousands feels intimidating, maybe one of those will be more up your alley. You’ll have to come back to find out, though!

Hope you all have a lovely day! xx

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