Word Count – It’s Just a Number, Right? WRONG

Cover by Verve Graphics

So as many of you probably know, I’m working hard to finish up the first book of a young adult fantasy trilogy. -|

Well, the closer I get to the end the higher I soar on dreams of landing a big time agent, making a deal with randomhouse, and quitting my day job to spend the rest of my life writing books and screenplays. A girl can dream, right? Anyway, my point is that more and more of my time lately has been spent looking for agents, researching how to query, format, and otherwise perfect my manuscript, and here is a tip I found that really surprised me.

Word count is important – okay, we all know that. But did you know that publishers and editors DO NOT use the same word counting system that, say, Microsoft Word does? I sure didn’t. When I read Chuck Rothman’s article I flinched…what, am I expected to go through and count them myself!?

No, fortunately publishers aren’t quite that sadistic 🙂 But according to Mr. Rothman, there is a very different system used by people in the publishing business. Why? Well, people publishing articles, stories, or books don’t care as much about the number of words as how much space those words take up! Seems simple now that I think about it…why would aEnglish: My own work. Created using "Inks... magazine publisher care how many words are in an article as long as it fits in its page-long spot, right? A story of dialogue might only be 75 words and still take up a full page. So, here’s the system:

Publishers define Six characters as word. Why did they choose six characters? No idea. Check out Chuck Rothman’s article on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s of America’s website if you want to read the full article, but here is the system that Rothman shares to quickly get the word count that actually interests your publisher or editor: (Quoted directly from the article linked above)

  1. Count the number of characters in an average, mid-paragraph line (BTW, this all assumes a monospaced font. If you’re using a proportional font, the number of characters can vary immensely, throwing off the numbers and word count).
  2. Divide by six. This is the number of words per line.
  3. Count the number of lines on a page. (This includes any # for blank lines.)
  4. Multiply #2 by #3 to get the number of words per page.
  5. Multiply by the number of full pages (plus any fractional pages), to get the total number of words.
  6. Round the number to the nearest hundred. Authors tend to round up; editors round down. This is the number you put on the front page of the manuscript.

Spaces apparently count as characters too! Look at this example Rothman shares:

"I'm pregnant," he said.

A computer would call this five words. A magazine editor would count it as 25.

Big difference! All those blank spaces after the short lines count as characters – they might as well, right? They take up the same amount of space!

So, to experiment, I just did this with my own manuscript. Now, my manuscript isn’t completely finished. It’s close…I’m expecting to add 10-15,000 more words (at least as microsoft counts them).

Still, at this very moment, microsoft word says my manuscript is 68,900 words. Kind of light for a fantasy book, but acceptable. When I went through this new word count process, I came up with 87,615 words! (Well, the first time I got 525,000, but I had forgotten to divide by six). Whoa!

And Mr. Rothman says it jumps his word count about 20% from what word says, so I guess that’s about right.

Now, remember, this is more crucial to magazine publishers than book publishers. No agent would turn you down or publisher scold you because your word count doesn’t agree with this system. But if you’re submitting to a magazine…that difference in word count could have a huge impact! Both in pay and whether your story or article will fit the word count range they are looking for!

What do you all think? Had anyone ever heard of this before? Those of you who have published with magazines before…have discrepancies in word count ever been an issue?


About Lisa Taylor

Hello! I'm an author, and in my time as an author I've realized that there are thousands of authors out there that just don't get the attention they deserve. So I'm hosting this "Writer's Block Party" so you can get to know the people that create the stories we all love!
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23 Responses to Word Count – It’s Just a Number, Right? WRONG

  1. jennymilchje says:

    I wanted to wish you the best of luck with finishing the book, your agent search, and the Dream 🙂

  2. This is great info! Thanks so much! It’ll also be a great ego boost… It wouldn’t hurt to add to my word count a bit. That being said, I too am writing a novel (YA High Fantasy), not something for a magazine.

    Thanks again!

    • Lisa Taylor says:

      Thanks for stopping by Eva!

      Yeah, like Tim said below, with novels it might be something you and your agent decide together which word count to send a publisher, but still very handy! It’s a good way to figure out about how many pages your manuscript will be as a formatted book, if nothing else. Good luck with your novel!!

  3. fivereflections says:

    Hello Lisa Taylor
    Reading your post about work count was very informative.
    David in Maine USA

  4. AJ Barnett says:

    I was a published writer way back in 1994, and we used a similar technique. We counted how many words in 10 lines of prose ( no dialogue but varying word length) so this gave an average word count per line. We then counted how many lines per page. From this we knew how many words each page gave.

    From memory, I think I used 250 words per page, even if it was full of dialogue and white space.

    • Lisa Taylor says:

      Hi AJ, thanks for commenting!

      I’ve heard 250 is usually a good estimate per page. I think the only real difference is that this takes into account the unused space in lines of dialogue, etc. It’s more useful to get an estimate page count than an actual word count. Interesting all the different ways to get a number that you’d think should always be the same!

  5. CeCe says:

    Wow, Lisa! By the end of it, my head was spinning..hahah. I never knew that. My gosh..I really have to check on my word count…hehehe A truly interesting and wonderful article, thanks for sharing. And good luck with the YA fantasy. 🙂 Always a pleasure reading your blog.

    • Lisa Taylor says:

      Thanks CeCe! I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who had no idea 🙂 Like I said, book agents may not care about this as much as magazine editors (see my reply to Tim) but still definitely handy since it is an accepted word count method among publishers!

  6. I hadn’t heard of this before, but then again I’m firmly in the self-pubbed camp so some of the industry jargon and methodology is going to definitely going to fly right past me.

    I’ll have to try this, though. My latest clocks in at 93K words as far as MS word is concerned. Using this method, it looks like it’d be bumped to about 115K. Interesting but not really sure it impacts anything. Of greater concern to me is page length in print form. I typically lay out my books in 5×8 size and I’m continually trying to figure out where I would be compared to traditional paperback size of 4×6…if for no other reason than to see how my novel sizes compare to some of the books on my shelf.

    • Lisa Taylor says:

      Hi Rick, thanks for commenting!

      That’s exactly what this method is supposed to do – give you a more reliable LENGTH, even if the actual number of words is not the same. Of course, not being in the publishing business, I really have no frame of reference to guesstimate how long, say, a 90,000 word (using this new method) would be. It does make it much easier to determine how many “words” are in your books on the bookshelf. So by doing this method on a couple books around the house and your manuscript, I bet you could get a fairly good estimate of your book length.

  7. Tim Barzyk says:

    Hi Lisa – Thanks for the post; informative and well-written.
    I would imagine though, for agent queries, that they would be more interested in the “normal” word count, like that produced from Microsoft Word, wouldn’t they?
    Like in your example of five words versus 25, that’s a five-fold difference! If I were to query an agent and say I had a 350,000 word novel instead of 70,000…? Perhaps it wouldn’t work out quite so dramatically, but you get the idea.
    Perhaps you and your agent would figure out which to tell the publisher, but I think we should put the Microsoft Word count in our query letters. What do you think?

    • Lisa Taylor says:

      Thanks for commenting, Tim!

      Like I said at the end, this is probably much more important to magazine editors publishing articles and short stories than agents looking for novels. However, from what I’ve seen, the impact is not THAT dramatic…it is pretty reliably around a 20% increase, not 500%. I think an agent looking for books would take either word count, and like you said, you would probably determine together which to send to the publisher. But even an agent looking for a word count is doing it so they can get a ballpark estimate of how big the book would be. If your book was nothing but dialogue and this method DID give you a 500% increase, I think they would appreciate the heads up that this book (50,000 words MS style) is going to be 600 pages long because of all the dialogue. That’s exactly what THIS word count does. I think if the two word counts varied that much, you would probably want to include both numbers with an explanation why.

  8. Wow! That is useful info. I knew it was different but had no idea how to check it myself. As I write fantasy my books tend to be long, so it’s important.

  9. jayrodpg says:

    Wow! That is really helpful to know! Thanks for sharing about it. I’ve been wondering a great deal of late about submitting to magazines and short fiction venues, and knowing that might make the difference between being published and thrown away. Thanks so much!

  10. I’d heard this briefly somewhere else before but didn’t know the exact math. What constitutes a page? A side of A4?

  11. My God, can this industry get any more complicated?

  12. Pingback: 4/2 Writing to a Deadline Part 6: “Writing from the Outline” | Jennifer M Eaton

  13. Pingback: The tug of my war… « Writing = Passion

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