A Few Confused Words about Word Count

There is, I’ve discovered, no math quite like word count math.

Everyone has their own ideas about how to figure out the number of words in a novel, most of which appear to be half guesstimation, half page-calculation, a quarter magical-thinking, and three-fourths chaos theory—and, yeah, I know that adds up to more than it should.

That’s sort of my point.

Some of the places I’ve checked (agent-sites among them) say that one is never supposed to use MSWord’s counting tool, because it doesn’t account for the length of the word— ‘a’ is the same as ‘acidophilus,’ which doesn’t help anyone figure out how many pages a the published book is likely to be.    Still others (agent-sites among them) say, go ahead and use Word, because the number is only supposed to give an agent a general idea of whether your novel is too long or too short for the genre.

Some guides advise to calculate by character count (with or without spaces) divided by X or Y; or by double-spaced page count (factoring in the half-pages and white spaces); or by rounding some unclear figure one way or another.   And some appear to go by the light of the gibbous moon, under which they consult the spirit of Einstein, who reassures them that it’s all relative (even the spaces).

Word says I have a 102,500-word Pigeon (give or take 35 words) on my hands—that seems like a pretty big bird, even if none of those words is ‘acidophilus.’*  According to the 250-word per page theory, though, it’s about 106,250.**  If I count the characters-plus-spaces and divide by six, it’s 94,317.

The moon is gibbous now, I think, but I’ve been too busy to gambol about, sorry—but if I calculate the characters without spaces and stipulate that each weighs as much as a single saffron thread, Pigeon weighs in at about six pounds, twelve and a half ounces.

I’m just saying.

As someone who was naively hoping that the math part of this writing business might be taken care of by agents, personal accountants, and possibly Swiss banking establishments—a woman can dream—I’ll admit I’m a bit . . . confused.

Of course, I’ll be checking submission guidelines very carefully when the time comes and I really shouldn’t be worrying about any of this, yet—if at all, supposing Einstein and the Pro-Word contingent are to be believed.  At this point, I haven’t truly started cutting any deadwood darlings, being more interested in untangling the timeline, making sure I nail down that one FBI agent who has a different name every time he’s mentioned, and jumping up and down on the structural integrity of the thing.

And it really isn’t necessary to know where the word-count stands before I pick up the axe, because what I’m supposed to do is take away all the things that aren’t part of the story and whatever length I have afterward is the right length for the book.***

It’s a theory, anyway.

There might be another theory that I’m trying to recalculate the word count in my favor so my beloved Chapter Four won’t fall victim to literary downsizing . . . but that’s just the gibbous moon talking.

What’s your favorite^ One True Way of calculating word count?  Does it involve goats and pixie dust?


*I did use ’a’  2473 times, though, in case you were wondering—I was, so I won’t judge you or anything.  However you feel about MSWord’s literal interpretation of word count, it also easily counts and highlights all the times I’ve used ‘just’, ‘which’, “—“ or any of my other charming, semantic tics—which is just darned useful at times.

**For those of you who just hissed through your teeth, I didn’t bother looking for white space—and y’all know by know how much I love long stretches of dialogue—so this is an inflated figure.   Again, sort of the point.

***At least until an agent or editor hands me a list of revisions.  I’m not that naive (just really, really hopeful)

^Not logical, just favorite.


24 thoughts on “A Few Confused Words about Word Count

  1. I did the 250-word-per-page thing for a thousand years, but the majority of agents/editors I’ve talked to prefer the simple MS Word count now. When it comes down to it, it won’t matter unless your ms (however you count it) is way over or under the norm.

    And you know how I love those long stretches of dialogue too. *sigh*

  2. Word count is one of those issues that makes my head spin! I prefer to just use Word, knowing it gives me a ballpark figure. Like you, I think about length in terms of relevance, cutting only the words that aren’t tied enough to the story to survive the editing stage.

  3. Because I self-publish at Smashwords, I strive to hit the 50,000 word mark so the book will be considered a full novel rather than a novella. A simple count with Word is sufficient for me.

      • I do think there’s more leeway, because no one is asking for a set number of words from me. My books defy genre as they are light mystery with a little humor/romance; they lean chick-lit. 50,000 words seemed to be the low end for this type of book, and my writing just naturally landed at around 51,000, so I went with it. If I had to bring the books up to 70,000, it would be a ton of unnecessary filler. You are over 100,000 words. That is actually very good, yes? Is it easier to pare down than to build up?

  4. Timely. I was just checking average word counts today as I contemplate trying my hand at fiction. I’ll use the number at the bottom on my computer screen (Word). My life is too short and my energy is too low for anything else.

  5. Sarah, don’t worry. I’ll make sure to submit with you and 100k will seem like a novella by comparison.
    Or maybe I’ll end up not wanting to use much in the last third…uhm, yeah, that’s it.

    • Wanna swap? You figure out my subplots and axe chapter four, and I’ll triologize your Magnum Opus.

      (that didn’t seem like an indecent proposal until I wrote it down . . . )

  6. How appropriate, your topic, considering I just heard that the voice of the Muppets’ ‘Count’ just died. Other than that, I have no wisdom to add to the discussion. (But I’d be more than happy to help with the edit!)

  7. This makes my head spin, too, and I have never, ever, ever used anything BUT Word’s automatic count. To be honest, I think the 250-page thing is outdated, like using two spaces after every period or Courier. In any case, nothing’s going to be exact (depending on what your definitions are) so the automatic Word count seems perfect to me!

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