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Word Count in Serial Fiction
Word counts and the debate on whether writers should or shouldn’t be counting their words has been asked millions of times over. And each person you ask has an answer that varies slightly but boils down to these two: Yes and No. Everyone has a reason why you must count your words and they are just as adamant with their answer as those who say you mustn’t count them. I can go into what those reasons are but there are far too many and I will get off track of the point I am trying to drive home which is, what to do about the word count on serials?
There are dozens of others, like myself, who have already started or are looking to begin releasing their serial on their Substack. If you are wondering what Substack is, you can read my various answers to that question here and here. Many are going into this blindly, meaning they probably haven’t researched other serials that have come before them and on different mediums. Or perhaps they have done the research and are simply choosing “to do it their way.” And while I am of the firm belief that a chapter shouldn’t be considered finished until you deem it so and if that means it falls far below or above the “standard” for chapters this year, then oh well. That’s what edits are for. But I wouldn’t pull my hair out if a chapter doesn’t meet the mark I set ahead of writing.
That being said, I have looked at past serials. I’ve gone all the way back to Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers. And here is where I want to begin with my analysis:
Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers
Released Monthly for 19 months
Each month released 3 chapters
Total word count = 302,190
Words per issue = 302,190/19 = 15,904 words
Words per chapter = 15904/3 = 5,301 words
Now, I realize some of his chapters may have been longer than others. But the word count is accurate as well as the fact that three chapters were released per issue. Can it be hypothesized that if Dickens were alive today and had written Pickwick Papers he would’ve released one chapter a week (perhaps taking that final week to deliver a special “subscriber only” short story) over the course of nineteen months? I am fairly certain he would’ve done just that.
Fast forward several hundred years to web serials and the boom it’s had over the last decade or so. There are dozens of people I can point to, instead I’ll direct you to this website. The most popular, meaning they have been releasing serials in the same world for 5 - 10 years already and are still going strong, will typically release two chapters a week and each chapter will be around 5k - 10k words in length! That’s about 20k words a week and darn near close to 100k in a month. Many of these veteran web serial writers have already surpassed having written three million (yes, you read that right) words in their one serial!
Now, I have envisioned a vast world that will likely take more than three millions words to really make a dent in it, but they are not all in the same storyline.This means I need to look at my old and new examples (with plenty of other examples littered in between) and decide what fits and works best for me.
As I am writing a “serialized fiction novel” I define that quite differently than a web serial that is expected, or at least can, go on endlessly. In my case, I have an ending. In fact, I have a trilogy planned out and each novel will have an ending. My idea is to do something much more akin to that of Dickens, except my installments won’t be monthly, they will be weekly. The attention span of society today means leaving a reader waiting for a month before the next set of chapters would be tantamount to treason!
So, while I want to do what Dickens did, I need to be mindful of the times with which we are living and the demands of the day. That means if I have it now, I need to deliver and not hold back, at least not for too long.
I’ll release my chapters week-by-week (on Sundays) and hope that one chapter per week will be enough to keep my readers engaged. Of course, my serial fiction won’t be the only time I email my readers. There will still be my journey posts (My Creative View), my updates (The First Edition), and of course my short stories (Friday Fiction 2.0). I also plan on reinstating my podcast where I read my Friday Fiction out loud. All of this to say that while my readers may be searching for my next serial, in the meantime I will be keeping them entertained (I hope) with other “programming” until the following Sunday.
As for the length of each chapter, I am thrilled to see (at least from my rudimentary calculations) that Dickens chapters are much the length I hope to hit for each of my chapters. I’m looking for something between 3k - 5k words, no more no less. Again, if that should happen and I don’t hit the sweet spot, I’m not going to sweat it. My vomit drafts always turn out this way and it’s in the edits that I’m able to course-correct as needed.
I know one concern with word count is, as I mentioned before, the short attention span of the reader. And it seems their attention span is getting smaller by the minute. However, there are still readers of books with chapters just as long as the length I described. And a majority of those readers (present company excluded) read via their mobile device or some other ereader. This means the reasoning behind “no one will read my work for that long on their X” is incorrect. Of course they will with one caveat. What you write has to be compelling and worth reading. If it isn’t, then perhaps that is why it wasn’t read in its entirety and has nothing to do with the length. Or, maybe you did write something too long and upon self-reflection you realize the chapter could’ve been more condensed.
A great way to gauge whether or not a reader is truly reading all that you’ve written in your serial chapter is to put some questions either at the end of the chapter for them to answer or sneak them throughout the read. Like little reminders that you hope they are enjoying your story and can’t wait to hear their thoughts when they’re done in the comments section. These kinds of questions and others let the reader know:
You care that they are taking the time to read your work.
That you genuinely want to hear their thoughts and opinion on what they just read.
And if you want, you can even be so bold as to ask them if they felt what you shared was too long? You may be pleasantly surprised by the answers you get.
One last thing I will suggest doing is putting at the beginning of your chapter (if using Substack this can be included in the Subtitle section of a brand new post) the word count and read time. If you have Scrivener, you can get the read time by highlighting everything in your chapter then up in the menu selecting Project → Statistics → Selected Documents. At the very bottom it will give you the reading time for the chapter you highlighted. If you don’t have Scrivener, you can get the read time by copy/pasting your chapter here.
How long are your chapters or do you plan to make them (on average) upon release for your serial? Let me know in the comments below!
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