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Counting the Words
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
May 21, 2015
What Are Word Counts?
The word count represents the total number of words in a document. In my MS Word program it's the tally at the bottom of the page. Even though it appears to be precise number, there is room to wiggle and wriggle. Consider the following sentence:
If several words are hyphenated together, are they one or many? My software has decided that "seven-year-old" is a single word, but not everyone may agree. What about contractions? Is it fair to count "it's" as one word when it represents "it is," which are two?
Also, which part of a document belongs to a word count? Do you count the byline or not? What about the title? What about the table of contents? What about the index, the note from the author, or the author biography? What about the first chapter from your next book that you include at the end of the current volume?
There is no single correct answer to these questions. Generally I just go with what my software tells me, which has decided on an algorithm. If you have a reason to answer differently, clarify the question and then give your answer(s). For example, you might want to give different counts for the text, the author's note, and the chapter of the next novel.
Why Word Counts Matter
Even though word counts may not be as precise a measurement as we would like, they have always mattered to publishers and editors, and hence, to the writers trying to sell them their stories. Word counts help publishers estimate the number of pages a manuscript will have after it becomes a book. Word counts are even more important to editors of print newspapers and magazines, who are preoccupied by layout.
Moreover, the word count helps give a sense of how deep a work is. Even the guidelines to Writing-World warn that it is challenging to write an acceptable article with fewer than 800 words.
Writing to a Specific Word Count
You may think that your story should determine the length of your manuscript, and this attitude has merit. Writing to meet a specific word count can have an artificial and arbitrary feel. Yet oddly, parameters and goals can do wonders for your creativity. There is no problem, of course, if your story fits the required word count from the get-go, but often you will find you are running either under or over.
When You Want Fewer Words
I recently wrote a flash fiction story with an upper limit of 1000 words, where I was forced to cut and tighten with more discipline than usual. Here are some ways to do it:
Come to think of it, these suggestions are useful even when you're not bumping against a low barrier.
When You Need More Words
I have encountered this situation as well. I rarely have trouble reaching a respectable word count for the articles that I submit for the Crafting Fabulous Fiction column on Writing-World.com, but I have done many articles that required a certain word count in order to be accepted by the client. Perhaps my article is running at 600 words and it needs to have at least 800.
How you approach this problem depends how serious your shortfall is. If it is just a little, you may be able to pad your story with a joke or a moment of confusion or miscommunication. You can reverse some of the techniques mentioned above. Instead of using contractions, such as "it's" you can write out "it is."
However, you don't want filler to be too obvious. Some examples of filler include: repetition that does not go anywhere; interactions with characters who do not matter; description that is pointless. If you can cut it and no one will miss it, then it is probably filler.
The best approach, if you can manage it, is to include another idea. This is why novels often contain plot twists and multiple storylines.
Similar Problems In Other Media Note that these problems can be more significant in other media. For example, if you are writing for a TV show, then you will have a certain number of minutes to fill: no more and no less. Sometimes fight scenes and love scenes go on longer than necessary because the writers lacked inspiration.
Word Counts While Writing -- Daily Tallies
First drafts can be frustrating. Sometimes the muse shows up and then words pour out, but on other occasions, creating something out of nothing is a real chore. Furthermore, at the beginning of a project, I am acutely aware of how far I still have to go. Watching that tally grow, one word at a time, gives me a sense of accomplishment even when I don't have the thrill of inspired creativity. It helps me continue.
Productivity is important for anyone who wants a serious career as a writer. Even if you don't have the desire or the wherewithal to dedicate yourself to writing full-time, you may need to be even more productive during the fewer hours you have for writing if you hope to finish anything. A daily goal of somewhere between 500 to 2000 words can be useful in this case. You should modify the goal to reflect how much time you have to write on a particular day. It helps to combine realism and ambition. Also, less experienced writers may want to start with a lower goal and raise it later.
Most readers of this column are probably familiar with NaNoWriMo, which stands for "National Novel Writing Month" (a misnomer as the program is international). NaNoWriMo gives participants the goal of writing a novel, or at least 50,000 words of a novel, during the month of November. This comes out to 1,667 words on average per day (50,000 words ÷ 30 days = 1,666.7 words per day). Remember, if you take off Thanksgiving to spend it with family, you will have to write more on the other days. Many people can't maintain this pace all the time, but it can be a good exercise.
Unfortunately, many words that you type during productivity pushes will need to be revised or even deleted, but usually SOME will be good enough to keep, and others, even if they are wrong may lead your story in promising directions.
Remember, too, that when you are in a different stage of your project you should no longer measure your progress in new words written but with some other metric, such as editing a scene or a chapter.
A Rant About Word Counts and ReadersIf you ask readers (not writers) how long a particular book is, chances are that they will answer by giving the number of pages.
The number of pages has been a reasonable answer to the question for many years. Everything else being equal, a book with more pages is longer than a book with fewer pages. However, there are many times when things are not equal. The font used to print Leo Tolstoy's War & Peace is generally a lot smaller than the font used for printing C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. Furthermore, these days, when more and more people are enjoying books on e-readers, pages are becoming passe. I have believed for many years that supplying word counts is a far more reliable method for determining the true length of a work than the number of pages.
Yet when I discuss this with readers, I can encounter as much resistance as when I try to persuade some of my fellow Americans use the metric system (the United States and only two other countries -- Liberia and Myanmar -- are the only nonmetric hold-outs). I suggested word counts on a couple of discussion threads and most people were totally against it. People wrote that they did not know how to measure a book in words; that they had no sense for it. Even when I suggested that there be a transition phase during which pages and word counts are both given, few thought this was a good idea.
Here are some famous books and their word counts. These have not been personally counted by me so I don't trust them 100%, but they will still give you a sense of how word counts translate into stories.
Some sellers do include word counts in the information that they provide to potential buyers; I hope others will do so as well. I understand that including a new field is a programming nuisance, and there are all the decisions that need to be made with respect to how to count words, but these problems are hardly insurmountable. The word count is not a perfect measure of the length of a story, but it is more accurate than using pages. My belief is that many readers, if they are given the word counts, will soon comprehend what those numbers mean for their reading experience.
Counting your words can be useful in writing, but it is even more important to make each word count.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For the record, when guidelines request an article of, say, no more than 2000 words, that generally refers to the text of the article only. It does not include the title, byline, or bio. Hence, you do not need to "make allowances" for those items in your final word-count. Be aware as well, however, that if you're being paid by the word, editors again do not generally count the title, byline or bio. When someone submits a piece to me, I usually cut out those items to determine the word count of the piece itself. (Subheads do count as part of the text.) -- Moira Allen
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.