number of chapters in a book


Writing a self-help book? Start with this structure:

Define the problem

Give the history of the problem

Explain what the reader needs to know before tackling the problem

Offer an action plan

Expand outward with advice on how to apply the new knowledge and skills in the future, during especially challenging times, and when dealing with others (family, coworkers, community members) who are stuck in old patterns

(more details are available in my video on structuring self-help)

Then look at your outline. Sometimes, you’ll have topics that don’t have to be addressed in a specific order to make sense. Start with the ones that your reader will most want to read about and then delve into trickier topics that require the reader to self-reflect, admit to flaws, do extra work, or face challenging emotions.

Make sure your chapter titles have energy and give a sense of what is in the chapter. In her new book Goddesses Never Age (just released!), Dr. Christiane Northrup used the hook “Goddesses” from the title to create titles such as “Goddesses Know the Power of Pleasure” and “Goddesses Grieve, Rage, and Move On.”

Now, if your titles are particularly clever, someone reading the list of contents won’t know what the chapters are about. In that case, you can write subtitles for chapters to help readers better understand what they will find in each chapter. Julia Ross did this in her book The Diet Cure with chapter titles such as “Chapter 1: Depleted Brain Chemistry–The Real Story Behind ‘Emotional Eating'” and “Chapter 21: Essential Support–Exercise, Relaxation, Counseling, Testing, and Health Care Resources.”

How many chapters do you need? A typical number is 12 to 18 but you might have 8 or even 25. It really depends on the topics of your chapters and how much your text is broken up. If you do not use a lot of sidebars, bulleted and numbered lists, and boxed texts, your reader may be daunted by how long a chapter is–even if you have headers every few pages. Too many headers and other design elements can be distracting, but if you’ve got some breaking up the text, chapters won’t feel quite as long as they actually are.

Do your chapters have to be the same length? No. If you end up with a 7-page chapter and a 30-page one, you should consider whether you don’t want a little more consistency in length, but what matters more is whether the concept holds together for the whole chapter. You never want your reader to suddenly think, “Wait, what am I reading about? What chapter am I in?” Your subtopics have to fit under the umbrella of the chapter.

You might want to help your readers better understand the structure of your book by adding part titles. In my book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, coauthored with Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, Part One is “Recognizing and Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Issues.” The chapters in part 1 define the problem, its history, and what you need to know: Why Is My Child So…Unusual? The Seven Senses, Tuning In to Your Child, and Where Did the Wires Cross? By the time you get to part 2, Addressing Your Child’s Sensory Needs, you already understand sensory issues, how your child came to have them, what sensory processing disorder is all about, and how to better understand your child’s unique sensory issues. You are ready to take action–and most of the book’s chapters are about practical actions to take. Within those chapters in the “take action” section that makes up the bulk of the book, there are plenty of explanations of issues related to sensory processing, from learning disabilities to why children with sensory issues have trouble with transitions and grooming. But the main idea of starting to help your child with sensory issues by understanding what you’re dealing with is set up right away with details to follow in the practical, action plan section.

So while this self-help structure may seem formulaic, you actually have a lot of creativity within it. Sketch out your outline, make sure your structure works, and then start coming up with more clever titles for the chapters (and parts, if you use those). And don’t forget to calculate what your word count will be. You want 50,000 to 85,000 words for a full-length self-help book, half that for a self-published eBook. Divide it up by chapters so you remain aware of how long each should be.

Was this helpful? If you do get stuck, contact me at info@nancypeske.com and let’s set up a one-hour phone consultation so I can be your wordmason and get you unstuck!

 

number of chapters in a book


How do you determine word count and length for a book and its chapters?

First, study other successful (key word: successful!) books in your genre to discover what length they are. For example, a typical self-help book is between 60,000 and 80,000 words in length. Don’t worry about pages for now. Editors, publishers, and agents usually think in terms of words, not pages because a page of a book or manuscript could have anywhere from 200 to 500 words on it. It’s more accurate to think in terms of word count. In fact, if I’m asked to work on a book “of about 200 pages,” I will ALWAYS question what that person means in terms of actual word count.

 

To determine the word count of a book, count up the words on a typical page and multiply by the number of actual pages (don’t count the copyright page, title page, index pages, etc.). I use the Chisanbop method of counting on my hands to 100  to quickly calculate page numbers, shouting aloud “one hundred!” or “two hundred!” to ensure that I don’t forget what hundred I’m on (most pages will hold 200 to 400 words). I suppose I could just write a hash mark on a piece of scratch paper too but that wouldn’t be as much fun now, would it?

 

Anyway, to determine the word count of your Microsoft Word document (or a highlighted section),  go to the Toolbar and from the TOOLS pull-down menu choose WORD COUNT.

Once you’ve determined what your book’s chapters will be, you will have to figure out how many words you’ll need per chapter to meet those word count parameters.

Let’s say you’re aiming at 70,000 words and you’ve come up with 14 chapter ideas. Assign a few thousands words to the front matter and back matter (which consist of the title page, copyright page, contents page, and the like, as well as  extra sections such as the a preface, introduction, foreword or afterword, epigraph, resource section, and endnotes). That leaves you with about 67,000 words. Divide that figure by 14 chapters and you end up with  4785 words allotted for each chapter.

 

Typically, a self-help book will have at least ten chapters but less than twenty, and most chapters will be approximately the same length.  If you have several 15-page-long chapters and one that’s 36 pages long, consider whether you could split it into two different chapters, or whether you’ve simply written too much on that topic and need to save it for another book. (It’s common for an author to realize this unwieldly chapter can be tamed and serve as the seed for his next book, which will look at that topic in depth).

When in doubt, look at successful books. How many chapters do they have? How long are the chapters? How much of the book is devoted to the “action plan” versus background material for understanding the book’s fresh ideas? Novelists and memoirists should be looking at length, too.  If you aspire to write the next Eat, Pray, Love or  Twilight series, how long should your book be? Remember that while the brilliant Harry Potter series ended with some hefty tomes, the first book was a more standard length publishers and readers are familiar with.

So take a few good books off your shelf and take a look at their word count. Familiarize yourself with your genre’s most typical length and think long and hard about breaking the rules and writing a book that’s very short or very long compared to its buddies on the bookshelf.