Word Mean Things: Novel

Word Mean Things: Novel

I (perhaps overly optimistically) signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo. For those of you not familiar with NaNoWriMo or the camps the organization runs throughout the year, the goal is to write a novel in a month.

All about Camp NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo (or sometimes more succinctly, NaNo), happens in November and challenges writers to write at least 50,000 words in 30 days. The point is to get people to actually finish a novel-length work. It forces you to make time for it, and it shows you that you can do it.

A screenshot of a NaNoWriMo project.

A screenshot of a NaNoWriMo project.

The 30-day timeline helps writers create schedules, organize their time, prioritize writing, and more. It also helps people turn daily writing into a habit.


Camp NaNoWriMo happens in July, and there’s a similar event in April of each year. While the rules about NaNo itself are fairly “strict,” camp is a little bit more lax. For the April and July events, you’re allowed to finish up a piece you’d already started or edit and polish up a piece. Or you can make like NaNo and start a brand new novel project from scratch.

Why Is There Such an Arbitrary Goal?

But who defines how long a novel is, exactly? Why is the goal 50,000 words, not 55,000 or 85,000, or 100,000 words?


Definitions, as we know, tend to be slippery slopes. Lines can get blurred very quickly. We need categories to help us identify the kinds of things we want to read, but they can also be easily misapplied. It might seem self-evident that a short story is short (but they can get quite long, actually). Novellas would be miniature novels, and novels are those great tomes like War and Peace or Gone with the Wind.

But it is?

What’s a Novel?

You’ve probably read novels. Maybe you read “junior novels” when you were in grade school. Maybe you’re an avid reader and you love reading full-fledged novels. Your attitude is the longer, the better! War and Peace is your idea of a great book.


There’s a wide array of lengths though. War and Peace might be a novel, but so is Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby, although they’re considerably shorter.

What gives? Shouldn’t a novel be a particular length?

Well, yes and no!

NaNoWriMo uses the definition of 50,000 words for their novel-writing contests. Participants are encouraged to work up to that word count in order to “complete” their novels. If they fall short, then they technically have not written a “novel.”

Word counts are often used to define novel length.

Word counts are often used to define novel length.

It makes sense for NaNoWriMo to attempt some sort of word count definition. Why? Well, when running a contest like this, you need to define what counts as “complete.” What is the goal? Simply saying, “Write a novel in thirty days” doesn’t really help people achieve their goal. One person might write 50,000 words, another 85,000 words, and yet another, a mere 25,000 words. We need a definition to keep everyone on the same page (heh).

There Are Other Definitions of Novel

Other definitions say anything over 40,000 words is a novel. And then there’s the idea of a “full-fledged” novel, which is often benchmarked around 85,000 words. Some epics exceed 100,000 or even 120,000 words.

Not every definition uses word counts to define what counts as a novel and what doesn’t. Some definitions give page counts. The idea a novel must exceed 100 typeset pages is a common rule of thumb.

A caveat is necessary here: Page counts are less reliable than word counts. Page design heavily influences the page extent of a book. I almost guarantee you two 350-page books are not the same word count, unless they have exactly the same page design. Even then, it’s unlikely they’re exactly the same length. That means one “novel” is shorter than another, even if there’s the same number of pages in the book.

Word counts are somewhat more reliable than page counts then. My book might be 100 or 160 pages at 50,000 words, depending on design decisions. There’s no escaping my 50,000 words is the same number of words as your 50,000 words, however. Word count is thus a more consistent benchmark for determining length.

Novellas and Short Stories Complicate Things

A novella is technically anything under 100 pages, exceeding the length of a short story. Since there’s confusion about what counts as a novel, there’s also confusion about what counts as a novella.  Some people prefer to designate novels and novellas by the complexity of plot instead.

Some people don’t even acknowledge novellas as legitimate categories, instead dividing works into “short stories” and “novels.” For those that use all three categories, a short story can run up to about 17,500 words before it turns into a novella. Others define a short story as anything under 7,500 words.

Short stories can also be defined by page count, much like novels and novellas can be. In most cases, short stories are anything under 50 pages.

We’ll Agree to Disagree

There’s one defining factor across all of these definitions: Nobody agrees what’s what. There’s a general consensus on what a novel is (and isn’t).

What benchmarks should we use? Should we use word counts, page counts, or something more substantive? Who judges what’s a complicated enough story for a “novel”?

Suggesting your book isn’t a novel because it’s 99 pages or 49,999 words is perhaps technically correct by some yardsticks, but every one of those yardsticks is completely and utterly arbitrary. Is it a novel or a novella? Who knows? And, to a certain extent, who cares?

Why Should You Care?

There is one good reason to care: marketing. Readers are often reluctant to part with their hard-earned dollars. Short story collections are notoriously poor sellers for publishers.

There’s also a certain amount of artistic prestige associated with the novel. Short stories, and novellas to a lesser extent, get the short end of the stick when it comes to judgments about artistic merit. A novel, we reason, is a work of art. It’s high literature. A short story—well, it’s short! It must be fluff. Never mind some very great writers make the short story an art form.


We’ve been taught quantity equals quality, to a certain extent, and that influences our book-buying decisions. If you’re writing, publishing, or marketing a book, selling a novel is a much easier task!


So what the heck is a novel? No one actually knows. Until someone figures it out, just keep writing. The story you need to tell will tell itself in the appropriate space.

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