Counting words

  1. PatrickAzimuth

    PatrickAzimuth Member

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    Hi all, fairly new to the forum. I've searched for this subject and didn't find a discussion. Hope it's not too old a chestnut!

    I ran across an interesting article about word counts, and according to the author, a NYT bestseller, the professional way to count words is to count one word for every six items typed, including characters and spaces.

    ** hmm, ok, would have posted a link, but don't have the points, so it's on a site called mystorydoctor (dot) com (slash) whats-in-a-word **

    So with courier 12 pt, margins 1.5" (top), 1" (left), 1.5" (right) and 1" (bottom), with 24pt double-spacing and 1/2" indents, that works out to 1500 characters a page, including spaces, or exactly 250 "words"/page.

    That ends up being something like 30% more than MS Word measures for the same text. Questions:

    1) is this true? (and if so, holy guacamole, Batman!)

    2) is it changing? Almost everyone uses word processors these days, and as the author mentions, many mistake the word count there for accurate, and publishers often accept it because it's cheaper. Even if the answer to 1 used to be yes, maybe you're weird now if you assume this with publishers?

    3) if 1 is yes, does anyone know of handy word count software that helps do this easily? I don't like to work in manuscript format/courier — prefer Times NR and different margins.

    Thanks!
    Patrick
     
    Dec 6, 2017
    #1
  2. zmunkz

    zmunkz Well-Known Member

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    Welcome! I’d heard the 250/page for mass market as an approximation, but I never heard of that formula of assuming 1 word / 6 characters.

    Sounds dubious to me...

    I just use scrivener’s wordcount tool.
     
    Dec 7, 2017
    #2
  3. PatrickAzimuth

    PatrickAzimuth Member

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    He apparently traces it back to old-style typesetting days, and he sounds serious about it. He's also an editor and faces writers who submit pieces that are too long, apparently.
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  4. Shorewalker

    Shorewalker Active Member

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    I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to say, but suspect that's my problem not yours.

    I think you're suggesting that Word word count is inaccurate?
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  5. PatrickAzimuth

    PatrickAzimuth Member

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    If you have a chance to read David Farland's article (the one at the "link" I posted above), that's probably the easiest way to understand it. What I'm asking is if what he is saying is true or not.
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  6. TheDustyZebra

    TheDustyZebra Inspired. Or possibly insane. Could go either way. Staff Member

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    It used to be five character spaces to a word. Does that mean we're using smaller words overall, these days? Or ...err... is that backward?

    I would think unless you're measuring words for newspaper column inches, it would be safe to assume that Word's count is acceptable to most people.
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  7. PatrickAzimuth

    PatrickAzimuth Member

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    Well, I guess Farland's point is that many publishers still think in these terms. And a 100,000 word novel according to MS Word might be 130,000 according to the old system. That's a mighty big difference. Better to know that's the deal in advance, if that's really how it is. Which is why I'm wondering.
     
    Dec 7, 2017
    #7
  8. The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    Word can be inaccurate, so for instance never rely on it for the short story Challenges here on Chrons.
    • Word will count joined words as one even if there is a mistake in spacing eg Iforgottousethespacebar = one by Word instead of seven when counting by hand
    • Word will count any hyphenated or invented compound word as one even if we mods won't eg bath-sponge or catfinger
    • Word will count some standalone punctuation or things like asterisks showing scene breaks as words where we won't

    However, the article isn't about accuracy of word count in that sense. The author isn't talking of "real" words, but an approximation to allow for type-setting, whereby the professional definition of "word" isn't one which lay people use, but the six-typed-items thing. That is, when a professional magazine asks for short stories of, say, 5000 words, according to him what they are looking for isn't a story of 5000 actual words but 5000x6 typed items -- which includes all spacing and punctuation.

    As to whether it's true, I've not heard of it before. The author claims that short story mags deliberately don't mention it in order to pay less than would otherwise be due -- what the writer thinks is a 3500 word story might be 5000 words if counted on the six-typed-items basis, but they keep quiet and only pay for the 3500 the writer expects. But I can't help thinking that the reverse is perhaps more likely, that the 5000 "real" word story might be only 3500 on a six-typed-items basis, whereupon the magazine must either pay what the writer thinks is due, ie for the whole 5000 words, or it pays what it claims is due, ie only for 3500. In that latter case surely someone somewhere would be kicking up a hell of a fuss which someone here on Chrons would have heard about and reported. It therefore occurs to me that the mags might simply have changed over to the "real" word count in order to make life easier for everyone.

    I've also not seen it in connection with publishers' open houses which have word limits eg the latest one from Angry Robot. They know they are dealing with people who are not professionals, who ask the most basic of questions about chapters and double spacing, but never once have I seen a publisher explain how they are counting those words for the purposes of establishing if someone is over the word limit. Again, I rather suspect they know there's no point using a technical phrase which no longer has any basis in need with the loss of old-fashioned type-setting, and they ask for "real" word count which is easy for everyone to understand and which they can convert to six-typed-item and page count should the need arise.

    If in doubt, next time you're planning to submit, ask the publisher/agent in advance if they're using "real" word count or this old type-setting rule-of-thumb word count and adjust accordingly.
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  9. Cathbad

    Cathbad Level 30 Geek Master

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    I think these things actually show Word is accurate, and it is us who make the mistakes.
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  10. The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    Well, that rather depends on how you define accuracy, doesn't it? Word obeys certain rules, and as far as that goes it's accurate to its orders. If one wants accuracy as to the number of words actually written, which is the important issue, it's potentially inaccurate in what it tells you -- that might arise because the writer has made a mistake, is ignorant, or is simply inventive, but it doesn't negate the inaccuracy.
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  11. Phyrebrat

    Phyrebrat ba-Ba-ba-brat

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    Oh lawwd, what a horrendous task!

    Scrivener (yeah, if someone was gonna mention it, it was gonna be me :D ) has a great automatic word count feature by default that - luckily enough - also follows the rules for our flash fiction challenges here on Chrons.

    pH
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  12. Cathbad

    Cathbad Level 30 Geek Master

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    Well, it's not an AI. It can only go by what we input, right? :)
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  13. Venusian Broon

    Venusian Broon Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity

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    Here's an article on it from SFWA:

    What Is a Word? - SFWA

    It relatively old, mind you.

    WolframAlpha states that the Encyclopaedia Britannica's average word length is ~5.3 letters, Wikipedia ~5.1 letters and in academic prose ~4.8 letters. The Bible, from the sources I could find (and not from Wolfram) comes in at a rather small average of ~4.0 letters/word.

    However, how WA calculate such things I don't know. You'd have to ask their algorithm.

    Looking at wordcount from a typesetting perspective may make sense if you are physically publishing, so I guess such publishers would have some sort of yardstick that they apply to estimate how a book/short story takes up space on paper. Like @The Judge I haven't come across a specific methodology spelt out. It just used to be that you could only submit printed versions, and publishers generally laid out very well how you should present everything. So the SFWA estimation could then be quite quickly applied to all the (hopefully identically formatted) submissions.

    Now with more e-publishing, I imagine, this may be changing as physical costs may be less relevant. (?)
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  14. sknox

    sknox Well-Known Member

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    What matters is not someone's rule of thumb, but only their rule-of-house. That is, if you are going to a print publisher, then find out how they count words. Their house, their rules. If you go to a different publisher, the rule may well be different. Which one is right? The one that accepts your submission, of course!

    Then there's another variable: print-on-demand. There, the relevant variable won't be word count but page count, in two respects. One, your cover artist will need to know how thick the book is, so will need to know the form factor (e.g., 6x9) as well as the page count, because a variation of even thirty pages may affect the placement of text and images on the cover. The other respect is pricing. Createspace (or other POD publisher) will set its base price according to the number of pages, not the number of words. Of course, we mostly derive the one from the other, so the topics are not unrelated.

    Just a handful of the hundreds of considerations we authors never used to have to care about. Ain't life grand?
     
    Dec 7, 2017
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  15. Thomas Storm

    Thomas Storm Member

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    I don't know if this is just me, but I find I concentrate too much on the word count. A novel or short story should be done when it's done, and be damned with the word count.
     
    Dec 9, 2017 at 5:50 AM
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  16. Cathbad

    Cathbad Level 30 Geek Master

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    I completely agree!!
     
    Dec 9, 2017 at 7:44 AM
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  17. Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    Back in the old typewriter days of submitting hard copy, they'd tell us to count the number of words on three full pages, divide by three to get the average number of words on a page, multiple by the number of pages, and send that in as the approximate word count. Of course this was often very much an approximation, for reasons that should be obvious, but they didn't care because the word count was likely to change anyway if/when the story was edited and revised. I imagine it's the same now. They only want an approximate word count. And for that, what our word processors tell us is going to be good enough.
     
    Dec 9, 2017 at 8:45 AM
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  18. PatrickAzimuth

    PatrickAzimuth Member

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    Agree with this too, in principle. But I'm just wondering for cases where there is a hard word limit or target required by a market.
     
    Dec 9, 2017 at 4:44 PM
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  19. PatrickAzimuth

    PatrickAzimuth Member

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    Wow, thanks for that SFWA article - that seems to answer it definitively, and the answer is yes—with qualifications:

    - this was circa 2005
    - all of this probably matters to print markets, but not digital
    - best of all is to ask for house rules up front. But if their official policy is the old-school approach of "one word equals each 6 characters including spaces" then go for it. Especially if you're paid by the word.
     
    Dec 9, 2017 at 5:02 PM
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  20. Venusian Broon

    Venusian Broon Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity

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    Focusing on a specific word count is an excellent way of discovering how to maximise impact with as few words as possible.

    Don't get me wrong, sometimes I like a baroque, overblown passage or even as a whole work...but also you have to know what to cut to make your style work.

    Always having the attitude that 'it will be the length that it will be' risks you always coming out a tad 'flabby'.

    Aiming to write a full short story in, say, 2000 words is an excellent challenge. True, it is not the same as a writing a novel, but you can transfer a lot of the skills involved in short story writing, to magnify and deepen your novel writing.
     
    Dec 9, 2017 at 5:13 PM
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