Word Count

I received a question over the weekend regarding Microsoft Word’s word count tool versus to the manual page x 250 word formula when submitting to publishers, and which is more accurate. Since I have gotten this question multiple times over the past year, it seems prudent to post something here.

…He [my agent] gave a rule of thumb for newbies on word count as somewhere around 80,000 words for a first book, but he recommended against using the program “Word’s” auto-count function saying it was wildly accurate. Instead he recommended calculating the word count using a formula…

In my opinion, both methods are not foolproof. Word picks up on items that aren’t really words, many times giving you a larger word count than the manuscript really is, but overall it’s fairly accurate.

The other method–multiplying the total number of pages by 250 (not 225 like the agent advised) is also inaccurate as far as word count because of the way text sits on the page.

For example, when it comes to dialogue, many times you will have several lines of only a few words each in an exchange that can last three to ten lines. This would skew the word count with the manual count because while the sentence, “Are you serious?” is only three words, it takes up an entire line on the page, as opposed to a tight sentence of description.

Here, take a look.

Example 1:
“Are you serious?”
Max nodded. “Yup.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Well you better, I heard it myself.”

Example 2:
The moon hung low in the dark sky, the waters of the black lake calm and silent.

See the difference in space that is taken up? Yet both examples are 17 words each. Same word count, but it will change the number of pages in a finished book if it keeps up those patterns.

So honestly, you can use either method. In my opinion, the exact word count doesn’t matter when a book first comes to us. Granted, we want an estimate so we know whether it’s a novella or a freaking epic that should be cut into four volumes, but that’s about as far as it goes. Especially, since no manuscript comes through our edit-happy fingers without going through some tweaking and multiple rewrites, the original word count doesn’t really apply anyway.

Once a book is edited and goes into production, word count doesn’t matter. The layout guys don’t really give a damn whether there is 84,209 or 91,659 words, they’re just going to make it look nice on the page.

Now, don’t get me wrong, exact word count is not important, but a rough estimate is. Like I said, there is a difference between a novella and a short story, just as there is a difference between a novella and a novel (and a novel and a manuscript that would eat up a redwood… ) and we do need to know what type of book we are looking at. A rough word count gives us an automatic general idea on how long the book will be, page count wise, in the finished product in multiple sizes (trade, paper, hard), which is something we do take into consideration. If you’re only talking a few thousand words, it’s not going to make much of a difference to a publisher.

So in all honesty, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If it makes you feel better, when submitting you may include both word counts on your cover letter so that the editor can go by whichever he or she feels most comfortable using.