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Chapter Length: Free Writing Advice

What is the correct chapter length for a novel? How many words should the perfect chapter contain? Read on if you are a new writer seeking free advice.

Too often, new writers become bogged down in the quest to write a book of perfect length. They write sentence after sentence, trying to develop an idea in precisely sixteen words, without realizing they should be aiming for a sentence of seventeen words.

Some writers spend so much time and effort chasing an incorrect word count goal that they never finish their first draft.

If you have never written a book chapter before, begin by reading the chapter on book chapter writing in the APA manual. The American Psychological Association (APA) Publication Manual ( 6th edition). The APA commonly advises on writing papers within the social sciences, but they also give advice on novel writing. They state 1784 words as the correct length of a book chapter, although their chapter on this topic runs for a controversial 2156 words.

They explain how readers subconsciously keep a word tally in their heads when reading a book. The subconscious mind is remarkably sensitive to word counts.

Do you sometimes feel that a book is dragging or that it's moving too quickly; it's because the number of words on the page is out of sync with the number of words your subconscious expects.

In her novels, author, Liz Cunningham, uses three words either side of the quota of 1784 words per chapter. It is a creative choice that works for her books and one which many authors have adopted for their own work. While the American Writer's Guild says you should use no more than "three words either side of the quota", it's up to you which side you err on.

Shorter chapters (1781 to 1783 words) will help to keep readers turning pages and interested in your writing. Longer chapters (1785 to 1789 words) can make it hard for some readers to engage with your text, and put them off reading the rest of your book. However, with three additional words, the skilled writer can convey to the reader a vast array of intricate philosophical concepts, flooding their mind with an extensive collection of thoughts and ideas.

You may not be aware of it, but your subconscious always monitors the number of words on the page when you read. When you're reading a book and you feel the pace is off, it's not necessarily a sign of a bad book or a bad author. It's just that your subconscious is telling you there is something askew in the book's word count.

“It better to read a book in a foreign language that you cannot comprehend than it is to read a book of the incorrect length.” - Haruki Fukahsima

Scientists at the University of Vienna decided to put the subconscious mind word count theory to the test in the early 1950s. Austrian researchers, lead by Professor Henrik Klopfer, asked study participants to read a fictitious story. Most of the story was shown to the participant in their native German, written with the correct chapter length of 1784 words, while a few chapters were shown to them in a foreign language, which the participant didn't understand. These foreign language chapters had a word count either far below, or far beyond, the correct length.

Researchers then tracked participants' eye movements. When the participants reached the foreign language chapters, those of incorrect length, they skimmed over the words and even skipped entire pages.

From the Austrian experiment, we can see that readers will subconsciously monitor the length of each chapter and adjust the pace at which they read to match.

Henrik Klopfer conducts a Chapter Length Experiment, at the University of Vienna, 1953.

The Austrian study has shown us that the way we read is a form of word count intuition. We subconsciously seek out chapters of the correct length, which we can read at a comfortable, natural pace.

Henrik Klopher concluded that reading a book with chapters of different lengths may affect the overall enjoyment of the story. So if you want to write a book that readers find enjoyable, it's vital to keep each chapter between 1781 and 1789 words. After all, the only thing that matters is not whether or not someone will read your story, and not even if it is a good story, but the number of words each chapter contains.


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