I’ve been looking at a lot of self-published books again lately, and not from clients but books that have already been published by people I don’t know. One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of these books have a large number of short chapters. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I have written books (like the Watercourse Trilogy) with lots and lots of short chapters, and others (like Annihilation) with fewer longer chapters. I’m also currently working my way through Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star, which has incredibly long chapters. I read the whole Deathstalker series by Simon R. Green, too, which also had immensely long chapters. In both cases, though I really like the books, the chapters did seem way too long to me.
So where’s the sweet spot?
After tackling the myth of the 300,000 word fantasy, and doing a bunch of counting of the number of words in sentences and the number of sentences in a paragraph, it seems as though the length of a chapter is my final numerical frontier.
When I was at Wizards of the Coast and occasionally had to fend off accusations that what we published was “formulaic” I used to jokingly threaten that I was going to find out how many words the average American read per minute and compare that to the number of minutes the average American took to complete a bowel movement and use that to determine the perfect length for a chapter.
Okay, so, TMI, probably, but I get an awful lot of my non-work reading done while, let’s say . . . multitasking.
I’m not prepared to say I share that with most American readers, but I have sufficient anecdotal evidence to indicate that I’m not alone in that practice.
So, then, this begs the question: Is there some validity in that premise, whether or not it began as a joke?
Finally, I couldn’t resist it any longer and had to start Googling in search of statistics. After a much less than remotely exhaustive period of research I was unable to find any sort of authoritative statistic for the duration of the average American bowel movement. I see this as a failure of the Information Age, but for purposes of our discussion here, I’ll fall back on anecdotal information that ranges from five to twenty minutes. This comes out to an average of twelve and a half minutes for one poop.
The average American, according to slightly better statistics, reads approximately two hundred words per minute.
So I did the math:
200 words per minute x 12.5 minutes = 2500 words read per poop
Therefore, we can conclude that the precisely perfect length for a chapter is 2500 words.