How to Count Words Like a Writer

Most beginning writers count pages. Agents, editors, and seasoned writers count words. What’s the difference? Well, counting pages doesn’t matter much unless you plan to print your book on 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper straight from your printer. Most printed books are published on a specific sized paper and you pay for every page, even the blank ones.

So yes, pages matter. But you need to find an accurate count for the number pages once printed. That usually boils down to word count.

A little history. Once, long ago, people used to have typewriters. You hit a key and a physical sliver of metal slammed into a ribbon of ink to make the letter. Eventually electric typewriters made the job easier, but the font stayed the same: Courier. Writers formatted with 1 inch margins. The magic number that publishers used was 250 words per page. This is of course an average.

Imagine a page of dense description: James Joyce if you will. Now imagine a page with sparse lines of dialogue and short sentences: Hemingway. Count the words from each writer and you’ll get two vastly different numbers. The standard of 250 words per page is an average, nothing more. But it’s one that has stuck.

Most agents and publishers expect novels to be between 80,000 to 100,000 words. Too much longer and they take a risk on the printing end. Too much shorter and the reader wonders why she has to fork over $7.99 for a 40,000 word novella.

These days, Microsoft Word (or any other word processor) will give a pretty decent count. That’s all most agents want. A ballpark. They have their own secret formulas and Colonel Sanders recipes to calculate what they need.

Here’s what I have with my young adult novel. My word processor tells me I have 77,000 words. Yet I know I use a lot of white space: short paragraphs and dialogue. How do I know this? My page count is 325. This makes an average of 236 words per page. My non-fiction book, on the other hand, has a page count of 232 and has close to 70,000 words. Much more dense at 300 words per page.

I wanted to see how many printed pages my novel would be. I knew that 77,000 implied a shorter book to agents than it actually was. My method was simple. If we assume that 250 words per page is standard and I had 325 pages, just multiply. This gave me 81,250, or about 82,000 words. Slightly longer than the 77,000 my word processor had estimated.

Bottom line, don’t get too hung up on word count. Concentrate on character, plotting and voice.

Tim Kane

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About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a young adult fiction writer.
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