Often when I ask for an author’s final word count what I’ll receive is a page count, but these are two very different things. It’s understandable that there’s such confusion over the difference between word count and page count, but as any university student who has ever tried to fudge their page count on a paper will tell you, page count is extremely variable and easy to manipulate. (Seriously, I could turn 500 words into 10 pages if I needed to—it’s an art form.)
Page count changes based on the font type, font size, page size, margin size, line spacing, paragraph spacing, headers, and many other variables. If you had a standard page, double-spaced, Times New Roman 12 pt font, that would usually be estimated as 250 words per page, but even that’s pretty iffy.
The most reliable way to estimate the true length of a document is by using the word count.
Most word processors offer easy-to-locate word counts. For example, in Microsoft Word, the word count should be visible along the bottom bar on the left-hand side. If you have your manuscript saved in multiple documents as individual chapters, yes, you’ll have to determine the word count of each and add them up, but that’s still the only way to get an accurate estimate of the length of your manuscript and at some point in the publishing process you’ll need to do so no matter what.
This leads us to our next point: word count doesn’t just matter to your editor (but it matters so much to your editor—please know your word count).
Genre and Traditional Publishing
If you plan on going the traditional publishing route, or just want to fit with the standards of your chosen genre, you’ll need to not only know your word count but consider it on another level. This is the other reason I ask my authors for their word count: so that I can guide them in pitching and marketing their books.
Too high or too low of a word count can mean, for agents, that it will be too hard to sell your book and not worth the effort. It can also be a serious red flag for them that there are problems with your book. Now, in fairness, if you have a killer query and your sample chapters blow them away, and they do end up reading your full manuscript and love every word of it, they might be willing to take that chance on you regardless of the word count. And if you stray a little on either side of industry word count standards, that might not be a big deal. But why take any risks with your book’s future?
That’s why it’s important to know your word count, know the word count standards of your genre, and know where you stand in comparison even before you start editing, so that if you have a problem you and your editor can address it accordingly.
What are the industry standards for word counts in your genre, you ask? Well, there’s some controversy as to the specifics (you’ll find a lot of differing opinions and trends change over time), but here are some general estimates from a few reputable sources (cited at the end of the article):
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If you’re taking the self-publishing route, tracking your word count may not seem as important—and in many respects, you’re correct. You can pretty much do whatever you want with no restrictions if you’re self-publishing, and you certainly don’t have to conform to genre word count standards at all (your target market might not be expecting the variation which could be problematic from a marketing standpoint, but otherwise it doesn’t matter much). But, as in traditional publishing, there’s the matter of economics to consider.
When a traditional publisher decides to take on a book, word count matters not just in regard to the target market’s expectations but also in regard to how many pages the book will end up being in print and what other costs will be incurred to get the book to print (such as editing and formatting for print). Now, there’s a fair amount of wiggle room here because, as discussed at the beginning, page count is malleable—to an extent. You can only make the print so tiny before you get complaints from readers that they can’t read the text.
In the case of self-publishing, all those economic concerns are now your problem. If you want to print paperback copies of your books, it’s going to cost you more to print a longer book (with a higher word count) so it’s in your best interest to keep it lean to keep your costs down in that regard. A few cents here and there really add up when you are ordering a lot of books and getting charged shipping based on weight, and that cuts into your profit margin. If you’re only making ebooks, however, you’re fine. So while word count isn’t nearly as relevant when self-publishing, there are still aspects worth consideration.
Tracking your word count can get a little dicey. It can become like calorie counting for writers. The argument is often made at this point that word count is a vile, restrictive beast that consumes creative impulses and leaves authors weeping in corners, shaking their fists at their hipster typewriters as they stare forlornly at their blank pages. Yes, this is true. I’ve been there. I’ve shaken my fist at my hipster typewriter and been too worried about word count to actually get any word count written.
This is why I never recommend that authors even think about things like word count while they write their first drafts—just put it out of your mind (I know, you’ve read this article and now I’ve ruined you, but just try) and worry about it in a later draft after you’ve gotten the story down, or work through the problem with your editor. Nothing matters more than the story.
However, the don’t-restrict-my-creative-freedom argument, while entirely valid, is often also used as an excuse for bloated writing…so don’t be that person. Don’t be afraid of revising your work—you’ll survive it, trust me. And if you’re serious about a career as a writer, you’re going to have to get used to killing your darlings in order to advance your skills and master your craft. Refusal to budge out of fear or ego is only going to result in refusal to grow, and you don’t want that. Yes, there are always exceptions to every rule (yes, George R.R. Martin is one of them), but until you’re making a living off your writing as an acclaimed author, it’s hubris to count yourself among the exceptions prematurely. You have to earn it; we all do. If every word of your extremely long manuscript is pure gold, then that’s amazing. But chances are, if your word count is too long you’ve got some problems. Your problems could include:
- Bloated writing
- You need to trim the fat in your manuscript and cut out unnecessary chapters, plotlines, characters, descriptions, and so on. It could be too verbose. You might be going on “authorly” self-indulgent tangents…and you need to stop that—it’s weird for the reader. You might simply be over describing, including unnecessary information, or maybe you’ve got a lot of scenes that could be reduced to a mere sentence with no actual loss to the plot. If you can cut a chapter or scene out and have a reader not notice it’s gone, you’ve probably got bloated writing.
- Meandering plot
- Your long word count might be an indication that you aren’t really sure what your main plotline is or where you’re going with the book; you could have too many plotlines, too many characters, the plot could be too convoluted, or you many have no plotline at all and just a bunch of characters wandering around doing nothing for a thousand pages; or maybe your plot ended at the halfway point but you weren’t sure how or where to stop so you just kept going…and going.
- It was actually a series
- Maybe you were really writing a series of books and didn’t realize it? If so, you might need to cut your one long manuscript into a few shorter pieces that can be contained within a series.
- Multiple books crammed into one
- Maybe what you really have isn’t a series but a few diverse plotlines that should be separate books altogether and need to be pulled apart to really do justice to any of them.
If your book is too short, there are other issues:
- Not fleshed out
- You may have the bones of a story but need to now turn those into something fully fleshed out; add descriptions, backstories, character development, detail, imagery, and scenes. It takes time but it’s worth it.
- You have part of a larger story
- What you may have is part of what will become a larger story, or maybe a collection of stories; you might have to build out your world more.
- Short story or novella
- You might have a short story or novella, which is fantastic! You might just be unclear about your genre.
Your story could have any of the above issues, or something else entirely, but if you’re too close to your story and you can’t see the problem yourself then a good editor should be able to identify it with you and help you work through it—or at least guide you in the right direction.
Although a story with a word count that’s too long may seem like the bigger problem (and it can indicate more serious issues that need to be addressed in terms of skill development), many agents and publishers will agree that it’s much easier to cut down a long story than it is to expand on a story that’s too short, which is something worth keeping in mind.
You’ll see so much advice on the topic of word count and genre online that your eyes will bleed—they’re probably bleeding right now, so I won’t subject you to much more. But I do have an important final caveat for you from an editor’s perspective. You’re going to get a lot of advice to lengthen and cut based on your word count and a lot of it will be valid, sure; don’t disregard it offhandedly. However, never, under any circumstances, forget that nothing matters more than the story. Never take cutting or lengthening advice from someone who hasn’t read the story. As writers, we have to perform a very careful balancing act between not allowing ourselves to fall into the I’m-a-special-unique-snowflake-and-the-rules-don’t-apply-to-me trap and recognizing the fact that sometimes we need to plant ourselves in place and refuse to compromise when we know our creative instincts are right about something.
So, end of the day? Know your word count (so you can give it to your editor, at least). Know what the standard word count of your genre should be (don’t let it hinder you, but don’t make excuses for bloated writing, either). And focus on the story—that’s what matters more than anything.
Literary Agent Janet Reid’s Blog (A Must-Read Resource for Everything):