How long is a short story, novel, or novella?
No doubt you're wondering how long a short story or novella should be because you have to write one, or you're wondering if you have enough room to flesh out that fantasy epic that's been growing in your head. There are a few general rules of thumb for the word count lengths of short stories, novellas and novelettes (which we'll give you up front so that you aren't forced to read this entire post!), but with the ol' trusty novel the word length usually comes down to genre.
Why does story word count matter?
Before we get to the numbers, it's important to know why these word count lengths and distinctions matter. From a creativity point of view, they don't matter too much. Write what you want to write, and write until you're done. But the word limits come into play when you want to send your stories and manuscripts to editors and publishers. Editors of anthology magazines usually aren't interested in stories over a certain length (and, in fact, pay less per word over a certain threshold). While, on the other hand, a publisher won't touch a book from a new author unless it's long enough to earn the title of 'novel' (with that lower bound being dependant upon the genre you're writing in).
And, to be clear, when anyone in the publishing industry (agent, editor, publisher) talks about the 'length' of your work, they're always talking about the story's word count and never the page count. (Famous last words saying 'never' on the internet ;) ) This is because the number of pages in a book depends on the number of words crammed onto a page, and this number is obviously influenced by font type, font size, and any other styling the book designer chooses. And pages with lots of back-and-forth dialogue and short paragraphs will have significantly fewer words than pages with dense text, which is why a book's page count is less useful to now than its word count. (But, for those interested, a good rule of thumb for "words per page in a book", a good estimation is 275 words per page.)
Here are the quick answers to the question of how long each story type is, and you can read more details below (which is especially important when needing to know how long your novel-length book should be). Also remember that these things don't have hard-and-fast boundaries, but that a publisher (such as a short story anthology magazine) may have word limits on what you can submit!
Word count lengths of stories
Flash Fiction Word Count Length
Up to 1,000 words.
Flash fiction is a very broad category of very short fiction, sometimes with word counts in the single digits (although it's usually in the hundreds)! This is the only category of story to have more varied word count requirements than novels. Writing stories this short can lead to some fun outcomes and can help flex your creativity, and will usually be done as part of a specific assignment or activity. So wherever you're participating or submitting to, be sure to check all of the exact criteria beforehand!
Short Story Word Count Length
1,000 – 8,000 words
Apart from novels, short stories are the type of stories even non-writers are most familiar with. And they're probably also the second-most popular story format to write in behind novels. But their (much) shorter length shouldn't trick anyone into thinking short stories are easier to write than novels, because they have their own unique challenges and require different skills.
Short stories are often submitted to anthology magazines such as Asimov's Science Fiction or Analog, but publishers will often ask their novelists for short stories to release in-between novels. Often these will fill in the world-building gaps or bridge the old and new stories), and will often be given away as a freebie. Some writers like to have free short stories on their websites to entice visitors to sign up to their mailing lists or as the aforementioned bonuses for fans.
Novelette Word Count Length
8,000 – 20,000 words
This really is an in-between of a short story and novella, and could easily be considered a long version of the former or a short version of the latter (but who's counting?). Anthology magazines will often still accept stories of this length, and they fit perfectly into collections of your own short stories.
Novella Word Count
20,000 – 50,000 words
Novellas are odd ducks in that they're way too long to be considered short fiction, but way too short to be considered novels. In the same way, they also have a difficult time finding a place in the publishing world as they're often too long to serialise in magazines (Asimov's, for instance, doesn't currently accept long or serialised stories), but they're also way too short (with rare exception) to be traditionally published. (One exception would be for Middle Grade books, but the novella word count would need to be on the 50k end of the spectrum.) That said, we do live in a brave new world of eBooks and self-publishing, for which novellas are perfect!
But, as hard as it sometimes is to believe, a novella's lack of commercial viability shouldn't stop you from writing one! They're kind of the best of both worlds between writing a novel and short story, as you get to keep a faster pace and tighter focus, but also delve a little deeper into the characters or world building or plot.
Authors will often take ideas they aren't sure will fill a full-length novel and first write a novella (or, let's be honest, they set out to write a short story but forget to stop writing!). Once they're finished, they'll go back and see if there are parts of the story that can be fleshed out (either with more world building or sub-plots or new characters), and then expand that novella into the vaunted "full novel". It can be a great test-bed for an idea if you're confident in one part of your idea (say, the world or the main character) but aren't too sure about another aspect (say, the "world problem").
Novel Word Count Length
65,000 words and up
The first thing you might've noticed is that we jumped from novellas at 50,000 words up to 65,000 for novels. Busted. But yes, even considering how flexible these boundaries are, even 65,000 words can be considered "too short" for a novel (especially if you're trying to get traditionally published!). And also, that lower boundary is heavily dependant on the genre you're writing in.
(And, to confuse things further, novels for younger readers might also be feasible with word counts as low as 50,000 words!)
Keep in mind, too, that these guidelines change over time (many older books tended to be shorter), that there are exceptions to these very loose rules (some modern fantasy books are astonishingly long), and so on. A good rule of thumb is to look at a selection of modern books being sold in your genre and get an average word count from them, and to keep in mind that a publisher might be stricter on a first-time author than they are on a writer with five books under their belt.
Book word count lengths by genre
The most important factors of story word count
The biggest take-away for all of these is that these word counts really are just guidelines to aim for but shouldn't be taken as gospel. They're helpful to keep in mind, though, as they can be an indication of what the audience is used to reading and what they'll expect, and anything too far outside of these bounds, while not a deal-breaker, will just mean your story has to be that much better to compensate.
And, finally, the only real rule you need to stick to is that set out by whoever is making you write your piece. That is, if your professor wants "a short story, no longer than 5,000 words" then that's how long your short story can be! If you're writing "six-word flash fiction", you're going to fail if you turn in ten words.
So keep this guide in mind, do your market research, and happy writing!