Writing a Book: How long should my chapters be?

Jul 31, 2018 | Writing A Book

My coaching clients who are writing books and first-time authors in all kinds of online forums want to know the idea length for a business book chapter. Here’s the short answer. There’s no rule or standard about how long your chapter should be.

Some folks will tell you to make it “long enough.” That’s good advice if you can figure out how long “long enough” is and what you can do to make it happen.

Start Thinking in Scenes

Let’s not worry about the entire chapter. Instead, concentrate on the key ideas that go in the chapter. For most business books, a chapter normally contains three key ideas or less. If you’ve got more, consider breaking your single chapter into two chapters.

I call those individual bits “scenes.” I copied the idea of scene from screenwriting. When you’re writing for a movie or a video script, a scene takes place in a single location for a continuous period of time. If you’re writing a business book, a scene has three elements.

You need to make your point explicitly. You need to support your point with research of some kind. And you need to illustrate your point with stories and examples. That tells you what should be in a scene, but it doesn’t tell you how long a scene should be. For that, we go back to the world of screenwriting.

OK, Smart Guy, How Long Should My Scene Be?

According to screenwriter John August, a scene in a movie should be a maximum of three minutes long. For our book scenes, we can come up with a maximum word count based on what we know about reading speeds and attention spans.

People don’t read everything at the same rate. If you’re reading a novel, you probably read at a much higher rate than if you’re reading technical instructions. For business books, figure that most of your readers will be reading at about 300 words per minute.

That covers reading speed. Now for attention span. You can write the crispest prose possible, but most people will either want a change every six minutes or less, or else they’ll take a break.

So, we can do the math. The maximum length for your scene should be six minutes of reading at 300 words per minute, or 1,800 words. Since we’re dealing in approximations, call it 2,000 words if you like.

John August says that since a page of script translates to about a minute on screen, he evaluates his writing if he’s moved beyond three pages of script for a scene. I suggest that you do something similar.

When you find yourself getting up close to 2,000 words or around four single-spaced pages, reassess what you’re doing. Sometimes, you’ll consciously insert a break to the next scene. Sometimes, you’ll make some quick edits to what you’ve written and move on. And, sometimes, you’ll make a mark in your writing notes and revisit the scene when you edit and revise.

It’s About Meaning and Pace, Not Length

Make sure you’re delivering unable meaning by making sure that every scene is complete with a story, your point, and supporting research. Maintain a pace that keeps your reader moving forward by changing scenes before you get to 2000 words.

Bottom Line

Use what we know about reading speeds and attention spans to write a book that’s packed with information and easy to read. Concentrate on deepening meaning and usefulness and maintaining pace.

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