Word count for memoirs

by | Jan 11, 2011 | Blog, Improve your writing, Popular | 67 comments

How long should a memoir be?

Authors often ask me about “average” word lengths for their manuscripts. While there’s no reliable statistic, here’s an interesting post on word count from the blog of former agent Colleen Lindsay. The post lists a dizzying number of genres and a recommended word count range for each. The list was revised in September 2010 in consultation with a number of US fiction editors, but remains focused on fiction. So here are my thoughts on word count for memoirs.

  • A short memoir would be about 65,000 words, though if you’re an established author (read: if your books sell), you can get away with much shorter works. I’m thinking of New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin’s grief memoir About Alice, which couldn’t be more than 25,000 words long; Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (also about the loss of a spouse*); or Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. (*Perhaps my memoir reading is skewed in this direction for the obvious reason.)
  • A long memoir is about 90,000 words. This seems a reasonable limit even for the established authors, as it’s about the length of the average novel. I think you need to have an awful lot of compelling material, masterfully told, in order to write a memoir of that length or longer. Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, which must be more than 100,000 words, is the best example that springs to mind. (I must quote its unforgettable first line: “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”)
  • Colleen Lindsay reminds us that word counts have a practical and commercial effect, in that they translate into numbers of pages per book, which is a direct hard cost of producing your book. The more words, the more pages, the higher the print costs, the more copies that need to be sold to recoup their investment, and so on. While the word count ‘rules of thumb’ above can be broken (just like real thumbs), it’s a good idea if you’re new to the publishing industry to keep some of those business imperatives in mind when revising and editing your manuscript. Which leads me to my final point …
  • You should try to think about the word count only when you’re editing and revising. I know, I know, it’s nice to see the computer’s automated counter keep ticking over as you write fresh pages, but I’ve come to believe it is not only a distraction, but counter-productive. Your first priority is to write down everything you want to say, everything you remember, everything you think is relevant. Cutting some of your material is going to be part of revision, as is having to write new material. Accept it, and keep writing.

Ah, that last paragraph hurts because I’ve just abandoned a year’s worth of writing. But if I dispense such thoughts I must take my own medicine, too.

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