Aspiring writers of memoir often ask me about “average” word count for their manuscript. While there’s no secret formula, I usually say that a reasonable range for a memoir would be between 65,000 words and 95,000 words.
Below I set out examples of short memoirs, long memoirs, best-selling memoirs, and exceptions to these rules. My purpose is to show how broadly memoir can be defined, as well as the limits of word count for memoir as a tool of progress beyond completing your first draft.
Examples of short memoirs
A short memoir falls between 40,000 words and 65,000 words but can be even shorter. The briefest works of memoir tend to be by highly regarded writers who have already been published multiple times. Some word counts for short memoirs:
- New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin’s grief memoir About Alice (approximately 28,000 words);
- Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
- Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James (44,000 words)
- Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (approximately 68,000 words)
Examples of long memoirs
In my view, a long memoir is anything over 85,000 words. This seems a reasonable limit even for the established authors, as it’s about the length of the average novel.
Such works must be distinguished by a compelling story arc and outstanding writing, with a distinctive narrative voice. 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.
Some word counts for long memoirs:
- Educated by Tara Westover, approximately 115,000 words
- A Promised Land by Barack Obama, approximately 200,000 words
- Lauren Hillebrand, Unbroken, 121,000 words
- Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, with 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.”
Your memoir’s word count is not what counts about your memoir
Word counts for memoirs 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.
You should try to think about the word count for your memoir 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.
Your memoir must tell the reader a story
What many draft memoirs lack is the sense of beginning, middle, and end that a good story provides the reader.
With literary agents inundated with memoir manuscripts, they can afford to be extremely selective.
That’s why you have to do the difficult work of crafting and sculpting your raw material into story. Your memoir must function similarly to a novel in this respect, constructed as a series of events related by cause and effect.
Speaking from direct experience, I know how easy it is for a writer to commit their thoughts and sensations to the page, but lose sight of the reader in the process. That’s just the necessary and sometimes grueling work of getting down your first draft.
There’s an enormous difference in doing the essential work of emptying your mind of all the raw material you want to write about, and the story you must craft from that lived experience.
Need help with the story of your memoir?
Having written two traditionally published memoirs, agented several others, and conducted structural reports on memoir manuscripts for major publishing houses, I have particular expertise in helping writers find the story in their memoir.
I also provide a range of services for writers who are finalising their manuscript for submission to literary agents.
If you are serious about getting a literary agent and a book deal, consider working with me to make sure your query, synopsis, book proposal or other relevant submissions materials reflect your manuscript in the best possible light. Counter agents’ typical reservations before you query agents by having me review your draft materials. My services range from editorial review to detailed one-to-one support. And I offer a brief no-obligation call to discuss your needs.