Writers Workshop:

Down For The (Word) Count
(Originally published by Writers.com)

Of all the things you should be worrying about as a writer, word count is probably NOT one of them. You should be worrying about *what words count*. But, since a word count is expected when submitting almost anything, and -- if you are being paid by the word, or being told your manuscript needs to be longer or shorter by thousands of words -- you may have a legitimate need to know more about it

Nowadays most of us use our word processors determine to how many words are in an article, story, or manuscript. To a word processor, a word is usually group of symbols with a space on either side. Usually. Word counting varies from program to program and even version to version of the same software. Some software counts hyphenated words and word-clusters joined by other symbols as separate words. My old version of MS Word 5.1 for Mac counts a URL like http://www.writers.com as four words and the hyphenated as two. Newer versions of MS Word consider these word-clusters as single words: both the URL and hyphenated words above would count as only one word. The word count for this article, for example, is 647 with Word 5.1, 640 on MS Word for Windows 97.

Traditionally (and editorially) "word count" is not really the number of words in a story. It's the amount of space that story will take up when set into type. This is why you will hear authors say, "I just turned in a 500 page manuscript to my editor." Or an editor ask for a short story that's "less than 30 pages." A "word" is six characters or five characters and a space. This compensates for the discrepancies that arise in word length ("automobile" vs. "car").

In standard manuscript format -- one inch margins, 25 double-spaced lines per page, and a 10 or 12 point non-proportional font like Courier (in proportional fonts, the number of characters can vary throwing off the count -- a good estimate is: one manuscript page equals 250 words. Want to be more exact? The "old-fashioned way" to determine word count is to count the number of characters in an average, mid-paragraph line then divide by six. This is the number of words per line. Count the number of lines on a page (including "blank" lines) and multiply the words per line by the lines per page to get a words per page figure. Now, multiply by the number of pages get the total number of words. Voila! The length of the word no longer matters and you have determined about how much space your work would actually take up in printed format.

The space used up by dialogue is also accounted for with this method. Your computer -- and even your word-by-word count -- will come up with five as a count for the following:

"It's me!" she gasped.


But in a book or magazine, it would take up as much space as two full lines and "counts" as 25 words.

If you aren't really interested in making life easier for print editors, aren't dealing with book-length manuscripts, or maybe not even dealing with print media -- you might still consider using that the old-fashioned way if you are getting paid by word. It usually results in an overall higher word count. Higher word counts mean higher pay-per-word. So, as long as it is an acceptable method with your editor -- go for it. Then again, if you are writing a story that can not exceed a certain number of words -- you might want to try the methods that come up with a lower count. In any case, understand that "word count" is not always a number engraved in granite -- and there might be valid reasons an editor's count differs from yours.

WORD COUNTS for the Article Above:
  • 60 characters per average line divided by 6 = 10 words per line;
  • 10 X 25 lines = 250 X 2.5 pages = 625 (total)
  • Figuring by page: 250 X 2.5 pages = 625 (total)
  • Count per MS Word 5.1 (Mac) = 647
  • Count per MS Word (Win 97) = 640
  • Count per MS Word:Mac 2001 = 640

-- Paula Guran

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.