How long should a chapter be?

So a pretty common answer to the question of, “How long should X be?” where X is any unit of writing–a chapter, a book, a scene–is that X should be as long as it has to be. That’s not something I’d argue with, because even in areas where there’s a real tradition of word count limits, there are always exceptions. And it’s kind of tautological, as a book that has achieved “as long as it has to be” will be perfectly readable, because its author has found the correct balance. So, sure, it’s definitely true that writing should be as long as it has to be.

But! But. Let me just offer a caveat from someone who really likes numbers.

So, back up a second. When I write, I always feel like there’s a tension between my “plot brain” and my “writing brain.” Like, the me who envisions quick-paced action scenes is not the me who spends hours agonizing over le mot juste. A kind of authorial bicameralism,1 shall we say. And at this point, my plot brain is pretty good at estimating how much space my writing brain needs to work in, down to the level of scenes. As such, I pretty frequently use word count as a method of macro-pacing when I’m plotting out stories. I usually work in units of 250. So, for a “draft zero”2 I’ll just estimate in broad strokes how many words I think are going to be in a chapter: 1500, 2750, 3250? Whatever it is. I try to hit that. If I know I have fifteen chapter-ish plot chunks, and I know that the book’s going to be 80,000 words-ish, I can say (give or take) how many words each chunk needs, and how far into the book I want each plot chunk to hit. It’s basically turning WC into a measurement of reader experience/time.

The key here, though, is that I don’t hold myself to that word count to the point of frustration. I use it to make my stories leaner, but if I need more words, so be it. But trying to hit the mark makes my writing tighter. It lets me not focus so much on the “rightness” of the thing, but on the puzzle of making it fit established constraints.

I compare a lot of things to sonnets, but this actually is like a sonnet.3 I’m terrible at writing free verse and analyzing free verse. The freedom of free verse is paralyzing. The constraint of a sonnet, on the other hand, makes room for creativity. One aspect of the poem is established, and what the writer does in that limited space is easier for me to make value judgements on. It’s also easier for me to write. So the thing with word count, for me, is a similar game I’m playing with myself. I’m establishing constraints, pretending that they’re real, and seeing how clever I can be within those constraints.4

Infinite possibilities are murder to creativity. I like limited word counts. Just saying. So, how long should X be? Just do what I did when I was starting out. Do some math, see if you can make your story fit the numbers. And when it turns out you need more or less space, change it. But yeah, word counts are not the enemy.5

  1. This Bo Burnham skit about left brain vs right brain, while not exactly related, is pretty cute.
  2. I call my initial draft a “draft zero” because calling a first draft does it too much honor. Draft zero is word vomit.
  3. Unlike all those other things I say are like sonnets, which are just kind of an excuse to shoehorn sonnets into the conversation.
  4. Go read about constrained writing. Wikipedia is always clearer than me.
  5. Not that people are always saying that. That’s just how it comes off when I heard “as long as it has to be.”