A short story is any story between 1,000 and 10,000 words. A tale of fewer words than that is considered flash fiction. More than 10,000 is a novelette, followed by a novella, then a full-blown novel.
Exact word counts are not hard and fast rules, but a rule of thumb — just an average length. New writers should aim for a reasonable number of words for their novel length based on what makes sense for their narrative.
Short stories and novellas are different from long novels in the following ways:
- Lower word count
- Less character development
- Less world-building
- Fewer subplots than longer works
- Different marketability
Short stories and novellas are difficult to market for self-publishers and traditional publishing companies alike. You could try to get your short story published in a short story collection with other authors, but those don’t sell incredibly well.
The best method for getting your short story published is generally looking for a literary magazine or a publication specifically meant for publishing short stories.
Are there literary magazines looking for short stories? If you’re wondering where to submit short stories, there are tons of literary magazines and other publications actively searching for short story writers, many of whom pay the authors:
- The New Yorker
- Antioch Review
- Three Penny Review
- Cincinnati Review
- The Georgia Review
- The First Line
- One Story
Short stories are still an in-demand market. Publishing a short story in one of these publications is an excellent first step towards a traditional publishing deal. Also, you definitely get bragging rights if your submission gets accepted.
All these publications have strict word count limits, which is one of the main reasons word count is so important.
- Why word count is important
- Definitive word count guide
- Resources for short story and novella writers
Table of contents
Why is word count important?
Word count is crucial because readers don’t want to read stories that are too rushed or too slowly paced. Word count norms are the standards for a reason. However, the main reason word count is important is when you’re trying to get published.
Literary magazines have strict word count limits that submissions must adhere to.
From the point of view of a literary agent or New York City publishing house, they seldom waste their time with novellas. After all, it costs about the same to edit and design a novella as it does a novel, yet novellas often sell at a lower price point.
A quick search on Amazon’s marketplace shows many of the top-performing stand-alone short stories are highly condensed romance novels available on Kindle Unlimited.
There’s also a soft limit for first-time authors on the maximum length of a book. If you can’t tell your first book’s story in under 100,000 words, tell a different storyline for your first book. For fantasy or science fiction (sci-fi), 120,000 is the maximum for a first novel.
Traditional book publishers know it’s more expensive to print a longer book, so they are more likely to avoid publishing first-time authors with a book beyond 120,000 words.
If you’re self-publishing, word count matters less. Self-published authors typically sell a lot more ebooks than physical print books, so consumers aren’t checking the thickness of the spine to see how long the book is.
As long as you’re not misleading readers about the length of your book, self-published authors don’t really need to denote whether their book is a novel or novella. (Don’t put “a novel” on the cover or in the description if it is under 40,000 words.)
How long is a flash fiction story?
A flash fiction story is always fewer than 1,500 words and usually fewer than 1,000 words.
Sometimes, flash fiction under 500 words is called micro-fiction or micro flash fiction.
Take a look at this list of publications looking for flash fiction. You might be surprised how many people are willing to pay for these quick stories.
Famous authors are no stranger to flash fiction. Joyce Carol Oates, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway have all published flash fiction. (Oates even teaches a MasterClass on the topic of short stories — I highly recommend it!)
The shortest story ever written is most likely “Baby Shoes” by Ernest Hemingway (though the authorship is dubious).
This would be considered flash fiction.
Of course, young children’s books are often fewer than 1,000 words. Instead of calling them short stories or flash fiction, children’s books are usually classified as board books, picture books, and early reader books.
How long is a short story?
Short story length is always between 1,000 and 10,000 words, and usually 1,500-7,500 words.
How long should a short story be in pages? A short story is 3-30 pages long. This number of pages works best when published in a literary magazine or similar publication.
Check out Kindlepreneur’s article on how to write short stories.
Examples of short stories (1,000-10,000 word count):
- “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
- “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
- “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl
- ”The Monkey's Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
You’ll notice I’ve put these titles in quotation marks. It is proper to place short stories in quotations while you should italicize novellas and novels. There are plenty of exceptions to these rules.
How long is a novelette?
A novelette is between 7,500 and 20,000 words long — with some novella word count crossover at the top of that range.
Novelette is an uncommon term meaning longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. Some organizations, like the Nebula Awards, separate novelettes and novellas into two categories. On the other hand, Wikipedia does not have a page on “novelette.”
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most prolific writers of short fiction and novelettes, including “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
How long is a novella?
Novella length is between 17,500 and 40,000 words.
Although it is challenging to market a novella nowadays, several famous shorter works were novella-length:
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Is a novella longer than a novel? No, a novella is not longer than a novel; it’s shorter than a novel.
Are 20,000 words enough for a book? Yes, 20,000 words are long enough for a book, but it may be sold at a lower price and labeled “a novella.”
How long is a novel?
A novel is a story spanning more than 40,000 words. However, most novels boast a 50,000+ word count. Between 40,000 and 50,000 words, some experts use the term “short novel.”
It’s also worth noting that most writers shouldn’t write books longer than 120,000 words — especially not as a first novel.
How many pages are 40,000 words? 40,000 words is a page count of about 125 pages, which is the industry minimum for the label “novel.” A book page contains 250-300 words, depending on the font and formatting.
Are 50,000 words enough for a novel? Yes, 50,000 words are enough for a novel. In fact, the typical minimum for a novel of 40,000 words is often considered too short to be a proper novel. A 50,000-word novel is a more widely accepted minimum word count for novel status.
Are you writing a short story or a novella?
Now that you understand the importance of word count and how to tell the difference between a short story, novella, and novel, you know how to market your story and where to submit your work of fiction.
Let me know in the comments if your book is more of a short story, novella, or full-length novel. I check comments long after these posts go up.
Not sure how long your book is going to be? Make sure to outline your book. A first draft outline should give you a good idea of how long your text will be.
If you’re struggling to finish your novella or short story, check out my handy article on How to Write Faster.