Tag Archives: structuring nonfiction

The Word on Word Count and Length

How do you determine word count and length for a book and its chapters?

First, study other successful (key word: successful!) books in your genre to discover what length they are. For example, a typical self-help book is between 60,000 and 80,000 words in length. Don’t worry about pages for now. Editors, publishers, and agents usually think in terms of words, not pages because a page of a book or manuscript could have anywhere from 200 to 500 words on it. It’s more accurate to think in terms of word count. In fact, if I’m asked to work on a book “of about 200 pages,” I will ALWAYS question what that person means in terms of actual word count.


To determine the word count of a book, count up the words on a typical page and multiply by the number of actual pages (don’t count the copyright page, title page, index pages, etc.). I use the Chisanbop method of counting on my hands to 100  to quickly calculate page numbers, shouting aloud “one hundred!” or “two hundred!” to ensure that I don’t forget what hundred I’m on (most pages will hold 200 to 400 words). I suppose I could just write a hash mark on a piece of scratch paper too but that wouldn’t be as much fun now, would it?


Anyway, to determine the word count of your Microsoft Word document (or a highlighted section),  go to the Toolbar and from the TOOLS pull-down menu choose WORD COUNT.

Once you’ve determined what your book’s chapters will be, you will have to figure out how many words you’ll need per chapter to meet those word count parameters.

Let’s say you’re aiming at 70,000 words and you’ve come up with 14 chapter ideas. Assign a few thousands words to the front matter and back matter (which consist of the title page, copyright page, contents page, and the like, as well as  extra sections such as the a preface, introduction, foreword or afterword, epigraph, resource section, and endnotes). That leaves you with about 67,000 words. Divide that figure by 14 chapters and you end up with  4785 words allotted for each chapter.


Typically, a self-help book will have at least ten chapters but less than twenty, and most chapters will be approximately the same length.  If you have several 15-page-long chapters and one that’s 36 pages long, consider whether you could split it into two different chapters, or whether you’ve simply written too much on that topic and need to save it for another book. (It’s common for an author to realize this unwieldly chapter can be tamed and serve as the seed for his next book, which will look at that topic in depth).

When in doubt, look at successful books. How many chapters do they have? How long are the chapters? How much of the book is devoted to the “action plan” versus background material for understanding the book’s fresh ideas? Novelists and memoirists should be looking at length, too.  If you aspire to write the next Eat, Pray, Love or  Twilight series, how long should your book be? Remember that while the brilliant Harry Potter series ended with some hefty tomes, the first book was a more standard length publishers and readers are familiar with.

So take a few good books off your shelf and take a look at their word count. Familiarize yourself with your genre’s most typical length and think long and hard about breaking the rules and writing a book that’s very short or very long compared to its buddies on the bookshelf.


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Do you have headers in your nonfiction manuscript?

If you’re writing a nonfiction book other than a memoir, you’ll need to break up your text with headers. Good headers are like signs on the highway that reassure you that you’re going in the right direction (“Chicago/O’Hare”), orient you (“Chicago 45 milesj”), and tell you when you need to switch roads (“Exit for Dundee Road”). If you’re going to start a new topic, you’ll want to signal that with a header that gives the reader a good sense of what the next section is about. Ideally, your headers will be somewhat provocative without being too mysterious, clear without being boring. “Recite Affirmations to Focus Your Mind” is much better as “Power Mantras for Overcoming the Monkey Mind.” (Of course, if you use the latter, you have to be certain that you explain what a “monkey mind” is.)

You’ll want a header to appear every three pages or so, sometimes more often. You’ll also want to mostly use A-heads, meaning, headers that all have the same weight and are styled the same way.

A Typical A-Head Style

Quite often, I style A-heads in boldface and italics, in the same size font as the type, with two spaces before it and one after it, as I’ve done here. If I wanted secondary heads, called “B-heads,” I’d make them look subordinate to the A-head by not using all the many tools for emphasis. If my A-head is boldfaced and italicized, and the the first letter of each significant word is capitalized, my B-head might look like:

Centered, Boldfaced but not italicized or capitalized B-head


Centered, italicized but not boldfaced or capitalized B-head

Keep in mind that the subjects you encapsulate in B-heads have to make sense under the A-head. Think of the old college outline with its multilevel heads:

  1. Introduction and theme of paper
  2. Jane Eyre as an independent woman
    1. Her rebellion as a child adopted by another family
    2. Her defense of Helen at school
    3. Her refusal to teach at the school and pursuit of a governess position
    4. Rejecting Mr. Rochester’s “deal”

Adding a third tier of C-heads is often confusing, so try to stick with just A-heads and occasional B-heads. You can also use bulleted and numbered lists for material. In general, bulleted lists are in no particular order whereas numbered lists have items that must  be addressed in a specific order, such as Step 1, Step 2.

Spend some time looking at other nonfiction books in your genre and get a feel for how the books you find engaging and well-organized use subheads and lists effectively.

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