Saturday, January 30, 2010

Counting Your Words

Kiolia asks,

Which "word count" do you pay attention to? I've heard some parties say word count = 250 x pages, in which case white space could be a pretty big deal - but if you care about the actual number of words in the ms, seems like it wouldn't matter. Which is, I think, what you said here?

This is one of those things that has been made into a bigger issue than it actually is. Yes, we need to know word count. And yes, there are different methods of counting words. But as long as your query letter indicates which method you use, you're probably not running afoul of any rules. (Check the guidelines first, of course. If a publisher wants you to use a certain counting method, they'll say so in the guidelines.)

Let's look at the differences between the different counting methods. This is an issue of typesetting, a production issue. Think of it this way: the physical book is a container for your story. The container has some small degree of flexibility -- it's a rubber wineskin, not a plastic milk jug. But there will still be a point where a story might not fit the container.

Here's a very simplified look at print production decisions we have to make for each book. We need to select:

Trim Size. This is the measure of the finished page. In America, we measure it in inches. A typical trade paperback is 5 1/2" by 8 1/4", more or less.

Signatures. Most presses can print 32 pages in one pass. These are known as signatures, and for the sake of economy, most books are printed in signature sets, or multiples of 32 pages. (That includes front and back matter.)

Margins. Most books (other than the covers) don't require bleeds (printing to the edge of the page) but allow margins. The size of the margin can vary.

Leading. This is the amount of space between lines of text.

Typeface, or Font. The amount of text on a page can vary a lot depending on the design of the font. Garamond, for example, is denser than Times New Roman, though they look fairly similar. Point (the size of the type) can also be jiggled to get more or less text on a page.

And I could go on, but this gives you a glimpse at some of the major decisions which must be made for each print book that can affect the size of the container for your story juice.

To make things easier and more economical on the production end, we sometimes specify that we want a story of a particular length. We know that we can fit a story that long into a physical book of a particular size. So that gives rise to guidelines for word count. We know, for example, that we can fit a 50,000 word story into a mass market paperback with six signatures and such-and such margins, font, leading, etc. We know we can wiggle that for a slightly longer or shorter story, but wiggle it too much and we have to start changing the shape of the container.

There are two schools of thought regarding word count. One takes white space into account, and the other doesn't. Neither method is precise. But neither method needs to be precise, because all we really want is to make sure the manuscript can be set into a somewhat flexible container of a certain size.

If the guidelines don't specify which word count method to use (and they probably won't), then you can indicate which method you've used in your query letter. For example, if I read,

My Awesome Novel is approximately 80,000 words,

I will assume you're using the pages x 250 method. The word approximately and the round number tells me so. If you write,

My Dazzling Novella is 26,344 words,

I will assume you're using computer word count. In either case, I now have an idea of which container your book might fit into. And that's really the relevant information for me.

Any questions?


James Pray said...

Thank you very much for a detailed answer! This has been on my mind for a while, as I have a ms with a computer word count of 160k and an approximate word count of 125k. One of these is rather less daunting to pare back!

Jordan said...

I've never understood why publishers used a pages x 250 formula. (Okay, well, I understand that actually counting the number of works in a manuscript manually would be worse than writing it, but there are better ways of estimating words per page.) If they want to use that formula, then why not just ask how many pages in the MS?

However, I'm a little concerned by the advice to use exact word count. Putting a length of "84,289 words" in a query is regarded by many agents as a mark of the amateur. We're always told to round (84,300 or better still, 84,000).


Edittorrent said...

I can't speak for everyone in publishing. All I can tell you is my assumption when I see numbers like that in a query letter. It doesn't seem amateurish to me, though there was a time, many years ago, when I would have thought otherwise. Times and technologies have changed.


Dave Shaw said...

It's been a while and I've forgotten where it was (bad Dave!), but on someone's blog I read that the reason for the 250 words per page (which is based on the old manuscript standard of double-spaced 12-point Courier) is because white space in the manuscript will correspond to white space on the printed page so it matters for packaging reasons as Theresa describes, and that the reason for specifying word count rather than page count is for consistency with markets that pay by the word. I don't know how true it is, but it seems logical.

I suspect that agents may be a little more conservative about that particular 'mark of the amateur' than editors, since they're less concerned with how to sell the book to thousands or millions of readers and more concerned with selling the book and its author to one of a relatively small number of editors. That's just my suspicion, of course.

Theresa Milstein said...

I round up or down on my queries as well. This became a problem when I entered an contest on 01/25. The minimum for YA was 50k, but mine was 50k when I rounded up. I couldn't find anything in the rules saying whether that was okay. But I did find a note that if the manuscript made it to the second round, they'd check word count. I spent quite a while adding to the manuscript, praying I didn't add any typos in the process.

Edittorrent said...

The thing about that white space on the manuscript page? It doesn't perfectly correlate to the amount of white space on a typeset page. It's a rough indicator, but sometimes even a rough indicator is better than none.


Julie Harrington said...

Funny story on this subject. I had the joy of falling between changes in guidelines with my last submission. When I first sent it, the publisher wanted word count figured by the 250 X Number of Pages to figure out the word count. My book was dead on with their prefered length under that method. About a year later -- while the MS was still sitting in their house -- they changed to the actual computer word count. That new method now put my story on the short side. Almost *too* short. LOL. Go figure, right?

In the end it didn't much matter as revisions added a chapter and a half and put me just a wee bit over their desired word count (but still in the ballpark), so it all worked out ok, it was just one of those weird things. But then this submission seems to be all about the "weird things." As I understand it now, computer word count is becoming more than norm. I always check the guidelines though.


Linda Maye Adams said...

What do you do when one word makes you look shorter than it is? My book rounds out at 80K by the 250 method, but I'm just over 50K with the actual count.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

That was actually quite interesting! I didn't expect it to be when I read the title, heh.

I'm confused about the page-based word count, though. Doesn't it matter what size page and what font you're using? Does the formula assume you're using 8 1/2" x 11" pages and Courier font? The word processing program I use (Scrivener) doesn't even paginate!

Edittorrent said...

The formula assumes standard A-sized (or 8.5x11") paper, with one inch margins, double-spaced lines, courier 12 point or times new roman 14 point. The 250-word formula is reached by assuming you'll get 25 lines of text per page and an average of ten words per line. And yes, sometimes you'll have extra blank lines or lines with only one word, but the estimated length accounts for the white space.

In reality, actual word counts are almost always less than 250 words per page. This is why you can sometimes get dramatic differences between actual and estimated word counts. If the difference is more than a few thousand words, make sure you've formatted the manuscript correctly. If you're only getting 20 or 21 lines of text per page, this can make a huge difference.


Anonymous said...

Perfect timing! Thanks for going into detail to answer Kiolia's question.

I'm sooo close to finishing my MS I can taste it, lol! Each day I check the 250 x wordcount and the computer wordcount. They vary considerably. I must check my formatting.

I've not worried too much about word count before as I know to check the guidelines of whomever I query. Of course, when the time comes to query, if the agent has a preferred wordcount method then that could mean the difference of a chapter or two. As I'm going to be around 120K (fantasy), it had begun to niggle at the back of my head. Again, your post puts it all in perspective. Thanks :)

Harry Markov said...

So using the Word counter is not an action usually frowned upon? I know publishers apply different methods, when it comes to word counting and for some reason I have had a notion that the MS Word count is not how a writer on the submission roll should count the words.

Anonymous said...

I think a writer's personal style affects words/page, too. I tend to write a lot of dialogue, and I know that I gernerally average about 200 words/page, rather than 250. I'm not sure it matters for submissions so much, but it's useful for me to know that if I want to write 1000 words a day, I need to get in 5 pages instead of 4.


Meg Kass said...

Oh my gosh, thank you. I'll say it again: thank you. This seems like a minor point until you are a writer worried that word count will get you shot down. I've been badgering every writer I know about the answer to this question for weeks. My solution was finally to say: approximately "82,000 words by computer word count" and hope that the appropriate extrapolation into paperback pages could be achieved. Thanks again, for assuring me that publishing industry professional can indeed do math.

– Meg

Edittorrent said...

Harry, I can't say that it's generally frowned upon, but there are still some who do. Ten years ago, the reverse was probably true -- that most frowned on the computer word count. With the passage of time, we've started to adapt to the new technologies. Always check the guidelines, though.

Meg, lol -- I'm far from a math whiz.