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Saturday, April 16, 2022

Questions on Chapter Length, Page Counts, and Rhetorical Questions

By Bobbie Christmas
Q: For a two-hundred-page novel, how short is too short for the chapter length?
A: The length of a chapter has only to do with the scene or scenes that need to be covered in a novel or the subjects to be covered in a nonfiction book. No rules apply to chapter length. I’ve seen a one-word chapter, albeit a contraction, in Angela’s Ashes. If I remember correctly the word was “T’was.” 
While I don’t recommend one-word chapters, logic should prevail when it comes to where to break chapters. In novels a new chapter can start after a time shift or a scene shift, for example. In nonfiction a new chapter may be appropriate when the subject matter changes. 
Allow me, however, to address another issue this question unintentionally raised.
Editors and publishers don’t refer to manuscripts by the number of pages. They work with the word count, not the page count, so authors should do the same. Too many elements can affect the page count of a manuscript. Is it single-spaced or double-spaced? Is it twelve-point type or larger? Is it in Courier or Times New Roman? Does it have large margins, small ones, or standard one-inch ones? Does it have many chapters, all of which have correctly started on a new page, one-third of the way down the page, or has the writer not followed standard manuscript format? 
On the other hand, when you say your book contains 55,000 words, agents, publishers, editors, and others in the publishing industry will have a clear understanding of the length of your manuscript. Knowledgeable writers therefore think in terms of word counts and convey word counts when speaking to others in the business. 
To be clear, page counts should refer only to published books, not to manuscripts. 
Q: My wife and I have been editing one of my books, and we came to a disagreement over a question used as a statement. This was all I could find on Google: 
"Questions, commands, and advice are typically not statements, because they do not express something that is either true or false. But sometimes people use them rhetorically to express statements." Here is the sentence in question: “You’re not interested in justice unless it can be found in a bottle … are you?” The character is an attorney who presents a statement, sometimes accusatory, and then adds something that turns it into a question to avoid an objection from the other side about not asking a question. Here's another. "You had an ax to grind, didn't you?" 
My wife thinks that the sentences are not questions, therefore I should not use a question mark. I understand her point, but what do you think? 
A: "Are you" and “didn’t you” in these cases are intended as questions, regardless. I would therefore punctuate the first example this way: “You’re not interested in justice unless it can be found in a bottle, are you?” It could also be written this way: “You aren’t interested in justice unless it can be found in a bottle. Are you?” The recast changes the meaning a little, so I'd stick with the comma, as shown in my first example. 
The second example is fine just as it is: "You had an ax to grind, didn't you?" Even a rhetorical question is still a question. 
In this case you win, but break it to your wife gently. 
Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to or Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at

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