Chapters: How Long is Too Long?

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I’ve had a number of people ask me lately how long their chapters should be. My answer has been: “As long as they need to be.”

Now, it would be nice if I could give folks the “industry-standard” answer: “Chapters should be no less than xx and no longer than xxx,” but the truth is there isn’t a real standard in the industry. And frankly, I think that’s a good thing. I’ve never been one to count words on chapters, but then, I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. The measuring stick, so to speak, that I use–as a writer, an editor, and an agent–to determine if chapter length is what it needs to be is whether the chapter flows well. If I either find my eyes glazing over halfway through or if I reach the end so fast I’m left wondering what in the bald-headed dog snot just happened, there’s a problem. (Thanks, by the way, to my dad for that “bald-headed” phrase. <grin>).

Generally speaking, many writings tend to aim for 2500 to 3000 words per chapter. But there are so many variables. Such as:

Genre:

Fiction–suspense fiction is all about keeping the reader on the edge of their seats, which lends itself to short chapters. Whereas chapters in literary fiction sometimes are longer.

Nonfiction—likewise, popular self-help fiction seems to favor shorter chapters whereas memoirs, not unlike literary fiction, take a bit more time (and page length) to say what they have to say.

So the kind of book you’re writing will have an impact on chapter length.

Your Voice
Some authors have a wonderful, lyrical tone that just kind of ambles on out, like sitting on the porch in the South, sipping tea and leaning your head back to savor a summer day. Others deliver their words in an almost machine-gun patter, hitting readers with one truth after another such that readers race through the pages. As you consider the length of your chapters, be sure you honor your author voice. Your readers can tell when you’re cutting yourself short, or when you’re trying to draw something out for word count. It’s letting your voice come through that matters most, not word count.

Reader Expectations
That being said (the bit above about voice), do keep in mind that readers have a certain expectation of the books they read. If you’ve developed a certain pattern and pace in your books, don’t change that up unless you have a solid reason for doing so. Readers love to “feel at home” with their favorite authors, and though they may not be cognizant of things like chapter length, they will notice the difference in how a book
feels when they read it.   

Publisher Production Costs
Some books are written to a specific format, and as such word length for chapters matters a great deal. Holding to the set format makes the costs predictable and standard. Make sure you know what your publisher is looking for, or you—and your editor—could end up with some very unhappy surprises when you turn your books in.

So if you’ve been wondering about chapter length, my best counsel is to:

  1. Check with your publisher to be sure there isn’t a set format for chapter length
  2. Take the kind of book you’re writing into account. Check out similar books that are on the market to see if there seems to be any consensus on chapter length.
  3. Just write the book. End the chapters where they need to end, but as you go, use readers to tell you if it comes across the way you want it to. 

Happy Writing!

7 Responses to Chapters: How Long is Too Long?

  1. Rick Barry March 26, 2014 at 4:25 am #

    I believe you offer the perfect answer, Karen. I can’t imagine a budding artist asking an instructor, “How many brush strokes should be in a portrait?” Or would a newbie sculptor ask, “How many chips of marble should I remove to change this block into the perfect statue?” Silly examples, I know, but whatever the medium of artistic expression, the bottom line isn’t so much a matter of following a template as of creating something fresh and intriguing, fashioning a work that makes the desired impact on the audience.

    Thanks for this!

  2. Robin Patchen March 26, 2014 at 8:10 am #

    Good advice. I’ve quite writing in chapters. I just write scene on top of scene, and when I’m all finished and the book is as perfect as I can make it, I break it up into chapters. I’ve spent far too long re-numbering each chapter, because I changed my mind about Chapter 2.

    • Susan Flemming March 26, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

      I find I’m doing this more and more too, Robin. Especially as I get closer to finishing my book. I know what scenes I need to write and so I write them over a period of days and then I’ll take those scenes and organize/sort them where they need to go. Sometimes they end up being shifted because it makes the story flow better, etc.

  3. J.D. Maloy March 26, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    Robin, I do the same thing! About writing and compiling scenes. That’s how I see the story in my head.

    Rick, I like your silly examples :) They’re easy to understand.

    This post made me think of my coach telling me that I need to add more. Like Karen said, the reader can tell when an author is holding back. So now I’m working on putting more in. OR practicing number 3 on the list.

    Aren’t there an unwritten rules to this topic…it’s easier to take out than put in. And when in doubt throw it out.

  4. Becky Jones March 27, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    Ok, so I have a little question. :)

    I know that this varies from writer to writer, and that makes great sense–but within one particular work, is it OK to have some chapter-to-chapter variation? Particularly, in memoir craft. I’m working on one, and some parts are just plain shorter than others…and on the other end, it feels false to chunk up the bigger chapters just to service the overall pattern of the book. So, you think, that’s OK? If it’s natural, and the pacing feels true?

    Thanks in advance!

  5. Peter DeHaan March 27, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

    Karen, I once wrote a book with short, concise chapters, averaging around 1,000 words each. I liked the brevity and how they flowed from one chapter to the next. My editor was not nearly so impressed and had me rework my 30 or so mini chapters into 7 concept chapters. This required me reordering my book. I did it but liked my version better.

  6. Jacquelin Nazareth April 1, 2014 at 5:22 am #

    Sound advice, thanks Karen. I know exactly what you mean Becky Jones, I was actually wondering if a 300 word chapter was too short in comparison to the rest. As it is a memoir of soul mates relayed in two voices, I feel it looses impact when drawn out further. Your input, Peter DeHaan, is also much appreciated, thanks!

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