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On Word Count: Why Writers Care about Word Count

Yesterday I talked about a bit of a nasty surprise I got trying to finish off an old childhood classic: it was longer than Moby Dick!

Well, okay, no it wasn’t. Moby Dick is 210,000 words long, and Ivanhoe is only 175,000. Still, that’s a chunk.

175,000 words is about as long as the sixth Harry Potter novel (168,923 words), and 2 1/2 times the length of the first one (76,944).

Standard Measurements

And that’s exactly why writers like to talk about word count — it allows direct comparisons between books of very different sorts. It’s valuable to know the comparative sizes of different works (and absolute sizes of individual works), for lots of reasons:

  • Pricing services like editing. It takes a lot less time to edit a 200-page photo book with 20,000 words than a 200-page¬† novel with 70,000, and editors need a standard way to charge for that.
  • Estimating a book’s read time. That’s what I ran into with Ivanhoe. Funny enough, I ran into the same problem with the Harry Potter books when I got to Goblet of Fire. They’d been getting longer with each volume, and I’d noticed that, but book two was 9,000 words longer than book one, book three was 20,000 words longer than book two, and book four was 83,000 words longer than book three. The book itself wasn’t that dramatically bigger, because it used smaller font and less white space to get a lot more words per page. (And if you’re curious, book five — the longest — was longer than Moby Dick by a good 20%.)
  • Allocating storage. Whether it’s on your bookshelves at home or in the sprawling stacks at Barnes and Noble, space for books is at a premium, and the size of the book matters a lot in determining where it will fit (or if it will fit). Now that things are going digital, there’s a lot less white space juggling, and a lot more interest in word count, since that’s a much better predictor of final file sizes.
  • Knowing what to expect. That’s probably the biggest value of accurate comparisons. If I get lost in a land of fantasy and adventure for a couple hours longer than I’d expected, that’s no problem, but if I pay $9.99 expecting to get a novel and end up with a short story, I’m going to feel a little ripped off.

Of course, with the exception of editorial services, most of the world deals with those same issues and gets by on a much simpler metric: page count. That’s a lot easier to keep track of, because it’s printed right there on the page!

Writing for the Page (and Not Writing for the Page)

The reason page count doesn’t work in the writing/publishing world is because, like I showed with the Harry Potter example, it’s such a flexible thing. If an editor wanted to charge me $100 a page to review my novel, I could single-space that sucker and slap an 8 point font on it and get myself a hell of a deal.

Tracking word count makes it easy to know how much content is in a document, and that’s usually the information we really want.¬† Once you’ve got the content nailed down, it’s almost an afterthought to distribute those words across an arbitrary number of pages — based on issues of style as much as anything else.

How Long Should It Be?

Of course, knowing why writers and publishers care about word count probably isn’t enough. You still need to know what to do with it.

Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you how to figure word count, and provide some rough word count targets for various writing projects.

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