If you’re wondering how long you should make your book chapters, think of books you’ve read that kept a firm grip on your interest from one chapter to the next.
Do you remember taking half an hour or more to get through one chapter?
Did it feel too long, too short, or just right for the book you were reading?
Fortunately for us writers, there’s room for flexibility.
And as a rule, when it comes to deciding how many words in a chapter, it pays to think of your reader’s experience first.
Does chapter-length matter?
With fiction, your chapter length will affect — or be affected by — the pacing of your story.
Shorter chapters are best for a fast-paced story, though too short a chapter makes it hard to build momentum or to draw your readers into a relationship with your characters.
Longer chapters slow the pace and allow for a more gradual build-up of tension, intrigue, and anticipation.
After a long chapter, though, your readers are more likely to stop reading to take a breather, so it’s all the more important to give them a compelling reason to come back for more.
How many words should be in a chapter?
To answer the question, “How long is a chapter?” the genre of your book does afford some clues, but each chapter’s length has more to do with what’s going on in your story — or, with nonfiction, how much information you have to communicate in a specific chapter.
There are no set in stone rules governing chapter length.
And if you’ve read enough books, you’ve likely noticed that some chapters in the same book can be a few pages long (or shorter), while others are closer to 6,000 words.
And different authors have different preferences when it comes to chapter length:
There are also trends in different genres:
And when it comes to nonfiction books, the length of each chapter depends largely on the subject matter, though author preference and industry standards also come into play.
Every chapter should be as long as it needs to be to cover all the material clearly and thoroughly (or thoroughly enough).
Depending on the level of scholarship, each chapter might give a clear but concise overview, or it might go in-depth to explain every detail.
The latter kind tends to go longer.
While there’s plenty of room for variety, the average chapter length for a book is between 2,000 and 5,000 words, with the sweet spot lying between 3,000 and 4,000 words.
But that can change. And it may already be shifting toward smaller word counts.
As cheap as books are, now, and with the competition authors face, it makes sense to use whatever means we have to hold onto our readers’ attention.
Not every author can get away with writing 25,000 word chapters. And while The Goldfinch won a prestigious award, most of us just want readers who will complain that we kept them up late at night reading our books.
And enough well-paid authors have shown that shorter chapters help them make devoted fans of these readers.
Are you one of them?
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What’s the best chapter length for your readers?
Whatever chapter length you aim for with your book, consider how long it will take the average reader to get through one of them.
Then imagine where and when your readers are likely to read your book — during lunch breaks, on public transit, or at home before going to sleep — and whether they’re likely to have time to get through a chapter before they have to put your book down.
The average adult can read about 200 words a minute, depending on the flow and complexity of each sentence.
So, when deciding on chapter length for your book or novel, consider how long it could take your reader to get through chapters of the following lengths.
If this is a nonfiction book, you’ll want to give your reader as much valuable information as you can with as little unnecessary word padding as possible.
I won’t say “as few words as possible,” because packing too much information in each sentence can make your book easier to put down than to read.
But you don’t want to waste your reader’s time, either. So, make sure every sentence counts.
With nonfiction books, you can use subheadings to help break up your chapters into smaller, more manageable pieces.
If your readers can stop at a specific heading in a chapter, and if the subject matter referred to by that heading interests them, they’re far more likely to open the book again the next time they get the chance.
With novels, you can either keep the chapters short or break them up with visual markers, and begin each new section (or scene) with a drop-cap or by putting the first few words in all caps.
If you’re switching point of view with each section (rather than with each chapter), identify the POV character at the beginning.
Whether you go short, long, or average, every chapter in your book should be self-contained, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Every chapter should present a problem or conflict and a resolution, along with a cliffhanger or teaser at the end.
If at the end of your chapter, you don’t give your reader a reason to come back for more (especially if the chapter they just finished was a long one), they very likely won’t.
Do you need to adjust your book chapters?
Now that you know roughly how long your book chapters should be, maybe you’re tempted to look at your work in progress to see how close you’ve gotten.
If this is your first draft, though, don’t worry if they’re shorter than 2,000 or longer than 5,000 words each — or if they vary widely in length. You can always adjust that during the editing process.
And ultimately you want each chapter to be as long as it needs to be — but no longer than that.
For now, just enjoy writing your book. And may your creativity and thoughtfulness influence everything you do today.