[Counting Words by Gabrielle Harbowy – Reprinted from Issue #4 of Onder Magazine.]

Here’s an odd thing about the publishing industry. We all know not to judge a book by its cover (and we all know that books get judged by their covers anyway)… but did you know that in publishing, we don’t count a book by its pages? Writers and editors use a different metric: we count by individual words.

Learning to convert page count to word count seems simple at the outset, but that’s only because the standard conversion rate – 250 words per page – is a theoretical, simplified value that doesn’t reflect what is actually a complex reality. Equating the two is less like converting Fahrenheit to Celsius, which is complicated, but you can get a mental calculation into the right ballpark pretty easily once you’ve had some practice. It’s more like syncing up the tempo of your car’s windshield wipers with the blinking turn signal of the car ahead of you. They might match up for a moment, but trying to convert wipes to clicks is only going to frustrate you. And there’s no need to. The natural inclination is to convert them, but it’s more practical to think of them as completely separate systems that keep track of different things.

Word count informs page count. They have a direct correlation. But page count is a meaningless imaginary number until a book is actually typeset.

Anyone who has ever had to do a term paper, knows exactly why this is.

Font style, font size and margins have a tremendous impact on the number of words that fit on a printed page. We all know this because most of us have, on one assignment or another, manipulated these variables to suit our purposes. Too many words? Make the font smaller and squeeze them in. Not enough words? Bigger font, or tighter margins, or a hint of extra space between the lines.

You can play with this on your favorite ebook reader. Make the font larger, and there are fewer words on the screen. Make the font smaller and the screen fits more information. Kindle ebooks include “page numbers” to correspond with the page numbers in the printed book, but how many Kindle screens equate to one printed page? That’s up to you, your font, and your font size. Therefore, the page number is meaningless. It serves only to hold your place and to show how far into the book you are, but it can’t tell you whether each page is three screens, or is half a screen. The percentage setting is easier to visualize, when you want to know how far you are into the book.

Those are the visual settings features that can affect page count, but there are other things that affect it, too.

Dialogue can take up more page real estate for fewer words.
…even though they have the capacity to hold significantly more. Just those few lines have made a large impact on the number of words on this page, as compared to if they’d all been on one line.

Chapter breaks can eat up page space, too. It’s common to start a new chapter several lines down, or even halfway down a page. Sometimes the page before the new chapter is blank. That’s taking up a lot of page space without any words at all. If there are ten chapters in a book, that’s not so much. If the same body of text is broken into seventy chapters, though, that’s a lot more added space.

Illustrations may be worth a thousand words, but they don’t actually count for them. A book that has full-page illustrations, tables, or charts, is going to require more pages for the same body of text, just like our many-chapter example just above.

So you can see that the length of a manuscript is almost guaranteed not to turn into the same number of pages as another random book of the same length, when both are transformed into a final product. Font choice, margins, and chapter breaks also keep a manuscript’s Microsoft Word page count from too closely predicting the number of pages that manuscript will translate out to.

Word count is standard from project to project, from story to story, and therefore it makes a much more reliable form of currency. Putting arbitrary formatting choices aside, word count reflects the author’s actual creative output.

Instead of trying to do the mental conversions from one to the other, I recommend getting familiar with the word count scale on its own:

  • 25 words: the previous sentence.
  • 100-500 words: a paragraph; an author biography.
  • 1000-1500 words: flash fiction
  • about 2500-5000 words: a short story
  • about 5000-7500 words: a long-ish short story
  • about 15-20,000 words: a novelette
  • about 20-50,000 words: a novella
  • about 30-50,000 words: a middle grade novel

According to dictionary definitions, 50,000 is the minimum length that qualifies as a novel. 50,000 is incredibly short for a modern novel, which in practice runs about 80-120,000 words, with each genre having its own range. These ranges will also vary widely within each genre, depending on which publisher, agent, or professional organization you ask.

For some real life examples, instead of quoting you the word counts of wizard schools and magic rings, I thought I’d let a few Hellmaw authors chime in.

  • My own Hellmaw novel is about 80,000 words.
  • Ed Greenwood: “My early WoTC novels were about 120,000 words. The first draft of The Herald, my Sundering novel, was turned over at 98,800 words and climbed about 6k in the published version to incorporate ‘series loose ends’ story elements.”
  • Erik Scott de Bie: “Blind Justice is about 90,000 words. My WoTC novels were about 100-105k.”
  • Chris A. Jackson: “Dragon Dreams was 135K or so. The Scimitar Seas novels were 140K, 130K, 110K, and 136K in order. All of my Pathfinder novels are between 100 and 120K. That’s all of the “published” ones. My self-published novels run between 120 and 140K also, so that looks like my sweet spot.”

Now think about how different each of those books would look if they were a mass market paperback (the small, thick ones), a trade paperback which has taller pages, and therefore more room for words per page (they can have cover dimensions of 8.5 by 5.5 inches, or can be 6×9), a hardcover, a large-print edition for the visually impaired, a braille edition, an oversized coffee-table book special edition with lots of art… and an audio edition with no pages at all. You get the idea. And across all those formats, the story itself is the same size. There is no page count until there are pages to count, so the creator can’t think in terms of page count. They can only measure in terms of their own words, however many pages those words end up inhabiting.

About The Author

Gabrielle Harbowy

Gabrielle Harbowy has edited for publishers such as Pyr, Lambda Literary, and Circlet Press. She is the managing editor at Dragon Moon Press and a submissions editor at the Hugo-nominated Apex Magazine. With Ed Greenwood, she co-edited the award-nominated When the Hero Comes Home anthology series. Her short fiction can be found in anthologies, including Carbide Tipped Pens from Tor, and her first novel is forthcoming from Paizo .

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