How long should you make your book chapters?

How many chapters should there be in a nonfiction book? And how long should they be? Let’s break it down.

Unless you have a heavily graphical book, the best way to measure chapters is by word count. Pages will vary based on the tools you’re using to write, fonts, line spacing, margins, and page layout, but word count is a consistent measure.

A typical nonfiction book these days is 40,000 to 80,000 words. It’s hard to create a book that people take seriously at less than 40,000 words. And it’s hard to maintain people’s attention for more than 80,000 words, unless your book is some sort of narrative — like an autobiography or the story of an event or company or movement. (These rules don’t apply to reference works, of course.)

The structure of the book needs to make sense to the reader. That typically means consistent chapter lengths. If one chapter is 4,000 words long and the next is 12,000, you’ll confound the reader’s expectations.

Recognize that in making your list of chapters, you’re building what will become a sexy table of contents.

So let’s look at five alternatives: short chapters, long chapters, medium-length chapters, the rare case of inconsistent chapters, and finally, no chapters.

Short chapters

Short chapters of 1,000 to 2,000 words are a good way to organize a how-to book. For example, my book Writing Without Bullshit, which has a word count of 57,000, has 25 chapters. Each chapter is 1,200 to 2,500 words long. As laid out in the print book, they take up seven to fifteen pages each.

For writers, short chapters like this have advantages. They are easy to plan: you just create a list of short lessons you want to teach, and then organize them logically. They are easy to write, too: you can write a 1,000 to 2,000 page chapter in one sitting, provided you’ve prepared the material you need ahead of time. It’s highly motivational to write a chapter or two a day and know you are making progress. And having written a few chapters, you’ll get the hang of it, which makes writing the rest of the chapters go more quickly.

If you’re adapting the book from content in blog posts (as I did), short chapters match up well to the blog content, which tends to be in 1,000 to 2,000 word posts.

Short chapters have advantages for readers, too. They can digest the book in bite-size segments, which makes the book easier to get through even in a world filled with distractions. People can sample the book, taking a chapter here or a chapter there depending on what topics are important to them at a given moment.

There are challenges with short chapters. For one, it’s hard to get an epic story going in little segments. Each chapter can include at most one user or case-study story. You’re not going to able to make a whole lot of subtle points in the chapter. You may need to break up longer content into sub-chapters, which is inelegant (“Chapter 11: Passive voice, part 2”).

If you’re going to write in short chapters, spend extra time on how you will organize them. I classify the chapters in the Writing Without Bullshit into four parts, starting with making the case and continuing with what to write, writing process, and different writing formats. Without an organization like this, readers struggle to make sense of the logic and organization of so many little chapters.

Long chapters

Many business books consist of eight to fifteen chapters in some logical sequence. For example, my 65,000-word book on social media strategy, Groundswell, consisted of twelve chapters of 5,000 to 9,000 words.

This organization fits many “big idea” books. In the first chapter, you scare the crap out of the reader with a new idea — an idea that they don’t want to miss out on. You spend another chapter or two backing this up. Then you write chapters describing elements of the idea — steps in a process, facets in the idea, or different types of application. You finish up with a few chapters describing the significance of the idea and taking it further.

I’ve written, ghost written, and edited multiple books like this, and it’s an organization that works.

It take more effort to write this way. You’ll need to spend some time assembling and organizing your content — case studies, interviews, research, frameworks, and argumentation — to figure out what pieces go in which chapter. You should create a meticulous fat outline for each chapter, so you know what you’re creating and how it fits together. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to write a 5,000 or 10,000 word chapter in one sitting, so it takes extended effort to create the chapter.

It’s also a little more effort to read. But if you can generate a compelling narrative to pull the reader through the chapter, they’ll stick with it to the end.

If you write in long chapters like this, be aware of word-count limits. A 12,000-word chapter is hard to organize and hard for the reader to struggle through. If you find yourself creating such a monster, figure out what you can cut to whittle it down to size.

The longest chapter in Groundswell, which is 30 pages long in the print edition, is 9,500 words long. It’s on marketing, which is a huge part of social media strategy. It includes four case studies and covers blogging, video, and online communities. That’s a pretty jam-packed hunk of content, and while we could have added more, the chapter just couldn’t handle any more stuff and remain coherent.

Medium-length chapters

Theoretically, there’s a middle ground between long and short chapters. You could certainly have a book of 16 3,500-word chapters, for a total word count of 56,000.

However, 3,500 words is sort of an awkward length — it’s longer than a simple lesson, but shorter than the full-blown chapter content I described in the previous section.

If this feels like the right length for your chapters, make sure you can keep the length consistent. A book with six 3,000 word chapters and six 8,000-word chapters is going to feel a little uneven to the reader (but see my advice in the next section.)

One way to keep these chapters consistent is to use a template. For example, each chapter opens with a case study, followed by a set of principles, followed by the research to back them up, followed by a clear how-to section. If all the chapters have a similar organization, they’ll be easier to plan, easier to write, and easier for the reader to get their head around.

Inconsistent chapters

Sometimes your chapters just won’t stay the same length. You have a lot to say about topic one, and not so much about topic two.

If you don’t want to tax the reader, the way to address this inconsistency is, paradoxically, to enforce some consistency on it.

For example, start each part of the book with a long chapter describing an idea, followed by several short chapters each of which show how to apply the idea in different situations.

Or have two types of chapters: Long “make the case” chapters and short case studies with lessons, and intersperse them in a way that makes sense to the reader.

Or have the first half of the book be a mini-version of the long-chapter concept I’ve described above, and the second half be made up of a bunch of short pithy chapters as I described just above that.

You need an obvious answer to the question “Why are these chapters different lengths?” As long as you know the answer, and the reason is also obvious and logical to the reader, you’ll be fine.

Just make sure the reason is not something like, “I ran out of steam so there’s just less to say in this chapter, since I didn’t do the work to back it up.”

No chapters

Must you divide your text into chapters?

It’s not a requirement. Seth Godin, for example, has written books made up of many dozens of short sections, with no chapter divisions at all.

But he’s Seth Godin. He can get away with that.

You almost certainly can’t.

Organize your book into chapters. Plan them ahead of time, gathering appropriate content to keep the length as consistent as you can.

Be sure before you start whether you’re creating short, medium, or long chapters. And keep an eye on that length as you create.

There’s more than one way to divide up the content in a book like this. Picking the right organization for whatever length chapters make sense to you is an essential part of planning your book. So make a choice before you’re very deep into the morass of actual content creation.

5 responses to “How long should you make your book chapters?

  1. Thanks, Josh. This is incredibly helpful. Today I am creating the structure of my book and this advice came right on time.

  2. The longest nonfiction chapters I’ve encountered are the chapters of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. There are 10 chapters. In Audible, if you listen at the nominal 1X speed, you’ll need 35.2 hours–about 3.5 hours per chapter.

    Below, I’ve arranged the 10 chapters from shortest to longest. The median chapter length is 3 minutes, 55 seconds!

    0:20 Chapter 10. On Angel’s Wings
    1:25 Chapter 2. The Pacification Progress
    1:37 Chapter 1. A Foreign Country
    3:11 Chapter 4. The Humanitarian Revolution
    3:22 Chapter 3. The Civilzing Process
    3:55 MEDIAN
    4:28 Chapter 6. The New Peace
    4:51 Chapter 8. Inner Demons
    5:08 Chapter 7. The Rights Revolutions
    5:21 Chapter 5. The Long Peace
    5:32 Chapter 9. Better Angels

  3. Rats. When I wrote “The median chapter length is 3 minutes, 55 seconds,” I meant, of course, “the median chapter length is 3 hours, 55 minutes.”
    In most nonfiction books, the median is more like 45 to 60 minutes.

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