Counting words used to be important. It also used to be arcane.
As the physically printed word goes slowly out of style, the importance of word count diminishes. When I worked as a head pressman at a small newspaper, word count was king because word count translated to column inches, and you only had so many of those in each issue. Reporters typed up their story, handed it to the typesetter who typed it into a machine the size of a van. Long strips of paper came out the far side which we then painstakingly—and absolutely literally—cut and pasted onto the page mock-up. Word count gave us an idea of how much space each article would use. But it was not a literal count of the words.
Later, when I started writing short fiction, word count was important again because it was how I got paid: by the word. A penny a word, three cents a word, it wasn’t much, but the word count is what set it. Publishers would only accept stories with word count in a given range, again because word count equated to column/page inches in each issue. But here, too, the number was not a literal count of the words.
Now, with electronic publications and hypertext “Continue Reading” links, word count isn’t so important. Manuscript format—Courier font, 12 point. double-spaced, one-inch margins—isn’t needed or even required in many places. And the calculation of word count? Who needs it?
Here’s how we used to do it:
- Take the average number of characters (including spaces) in ten MS format lines
- Divide that number by 6 (the average number of letters in a word)
- Multiply by the number of lines on the page (for average words/page)
- Multiply that by the number of pages (partially filled pages count as a whole page)
- Round up to the nearest 100, 500, or 1000 words, depending on total length
I generally got about 250-260 words to the MS format page depending on margins. This calculation was always greater than the word processor’s word count calculation, but it accounted for the empty half-page at the end of the chapter, the empty half page at each chapter start, and put each novel or story in a general ballpark with others of similar sizes.
I haven’t written a short story in a long time, so I don’t know if publishers still use word count or how they want it calculated. As for my novels, I like them to be at least 100,000 words (by my calculation); it’s a good size, a lengthy read, but not a doorstop.
Now, with Kindle pages, e-books, variable font sizes, self-publishing options, and all our news either in video or on the web, it’s hard to imagine word count meaning much.
It still means something to me, though.