What Is the Right Word Count for Nonfiction?

I am about to start Alan Weisman’s latest book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope For a Future on Earth? But I have to admit, the Index starting at almost the 500th page makes me wonder – Did this book need to be this long? As an editor, here is one of my favorite sayings about book lengths:

 

“In every fat book there is a thin book trying to get out.”

Have you ever read a thick nonfiction book and thought it could have been just as good or better if it were shorter? I have thought this – A lot. All too often major themes and points are repeated and repeated again. When editing for my clients, I commonly remark in the sidebar something to the effect – “You have already said this.” Part of what you get with editorial services and the editorial process is streamlining content down to all that needs to be there and nothing more.

There are long standing assumptions about how long a nonfiction work “should” be. It is commonly thought that nonfiction works need to be about 50,000 words.

Acclaimed author Glen C. Strathy (he co-authored with Stephen Leeb The Coming Economic Collapse, which became both a New York Times Business Bestseller and a Business Week Bestseller) has a different take.  In Strathy’s view, when it comes to nonfiction, there is a wide range of acceptable word counts.

As he has written:

“Some of them are very short, such as stocking stuffer books. Pencil-thin books on narrow topics that are under 50,000 words are quite common. On the other end, reference and academic books can be huge. Coffee table books and other illustrated books may have very little text, but be very expensive to print. In these cases, the overall design of the book becomes much more important than word count alone.”

I agree, and would go further. Whether nonfiction or fiction, what drives and determines the “right” word count is the content. If all the content that is needed is there, then it is the right length. Once the content is there, it’s time to streamline that content – to get it down to only the truly “needed” content. This means eliminating repetition and using my “cut it in half” rule.

In the movie, A River Runs Through It, the father character read his son’s essay, then handed it back to him and tells him to cut it in half. The son went away and did so, brought it back to his father, who tells him to cut in half again. With a keen eye, look at each section, each sentence, and find ways to make it shorter, more streamlined, more to the essence.

When it comes to the “right” length for nonfiction, it’s not about sticking to a magic number, but sculpting your narrative so that book that is trying to get out from the fatter one does just that.

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