How Long Should A Book Chapter Be?

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How Long Should A Book Chapter Be?

This is going to be a really simple (and possibly short) post. It’s going to be filled with controversial information and myth-busting. How long should a book chapter be? Let’s find out now.

Let’s assume you’re writing a book. First controversial point here: It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a fiction or non-fiction book.

Hell, this advice will also apply to blog posts and other pieces of writing as well.

The name of the game – and general thesis of this article – is that the currency of “how long should a book chapter be?” is, in my opinion, the attention span of the writer.

What?

Remember when you were back in school.

Chances are, you were given assignments to test your knowledge, and if we look back, those assignments were punctuated with arbitrary word counts and general lengths.

“Write a two-page essay on Romeo and Juliet.”

Or, “Write a 10,000 word dissertation on a subject of your choice.”

Now, word counts are entirely arbitrary in the real world. (Unless you have an assignment for a specific word count, in which case the customer is always right.)

Sometimes you’ll need a series of books to sufficiently explain a topic. Other times a 140 character tweet will suffice.

However there’s a tendency for the world to assume that longer is better. (No sniggering, please.)

I believe this to be a hangover from those school days.

A 1000 word article is better than a 500 word article, right?

What School Assignments Teach You

School assignments teach people to inflate the word count of every document they write.

Most of us remember those evenings where we wrote everything we knew about our homework topic down and fell half a page short of the required word count.

Even me… believe it or not, I never used to be this verbose.

What happened to you when this occurred?

If you’re like most people, then you didn’t go and research the topic for a few more hours to enhance your knowledge of the subject.

What you and everyone else did was try and add words to sentences, add sentences where they weren’t needed and use endless connecting words like however, that said and some may consider…

The sneakiest among you probably played around with the font size and the margin size. I won’t judge here.

But what that process did was take you out of your “writing state of mind” and into the “I’m going to add a ton of words for no real reason” state of mind. Essentially, you trained yourself to be a worse writer.

Controversial point two: If you went back in time, the material you wrote first time around was always better than the second, beefed-up draft.

If someone says to you, “throw everything you know on X subject” there’s going to come a point where you have covered everything you really know, pushed the limit by speculating on some things you sort of know and then simply run out of ideas for what comes next.

In that paragraph is the key to finding the right chapter length.

How Long Should A Book Chapter Be? The Definitive Answer

If you’ve practiced writing for a while, you’ll have a certain “attention span” for writing.

That attention span is the time-duration for which you can sit and write, get the ideas out easily and finish a single “strain” of writing, be that fiction, non-fiction, something in between… whatever.

Interestingly, that same amount of time will always generate around the same amount of words, providing you know what you’re doing.

(If you usually write sales letters and I ask you to write an 18th Century period romance, you’re going to be slower because you don’t know what you’re doing.)

Let’s use an example.

Based on a ton of data, let’s assume there’s a writer who can write for about 40-50 minutes at a time without breaking too much of a mental sweat or getting the shakes for checking his email.

In that 40 minutes or so, he can write between 1500 and 2000 words.

That is how long his book chapter should be, regardless of subject, medium or goal.

I guarantee that if you measure your word-count per hour and undisturbed writing time per period, you’ll get a consistent figure.

I’ll further guarantee that the following will be true:

  • This figure will not change significantly regardless of the subject, medium or complexity of the material (providing you know the subject/form well)
  • IF your word count is drastically lower at any point, it’s because you need to go back and plan better. You don’t know the subject well enough.
  • Over time, your word count and session duration will trend upwards. This won’t be dramatic or exponential; it’ll be like fitness. At first, 15 minutes will seem forever. Every time you try you’ll add an extra minute to a point.
  • If you try to write longer chapters in a session, they’ll be rubbish
  • If you try to spend two or three sessions on a chapter, it’ll probably end up bloated
  • If you try to “race” and write a couple of chapters in a session, you’ll miss out on the natural detail and have to do it again

Final Thoughts

This advice may or may not be anecdotal.

However, I think you should try using this method:

  • Find out how long you can concentrate for
  • Find out how many words you can write in that period of concentration
  • Aim to create a single chapter per session
  • Don’t attempt to cram two chapters in a session
  • Don’t add to chapters over multiple sessions

I figure if you follow this method, your chapters will all be sufficiently detailed yet not too dense or heavy on the word count.

Of course, I’d like you all to let me know if you agree/disagree and whether/when you’re going to try this method out!

Leave your comments below.

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