Words, and counting them.

Irene Cornyn  (LOC)

I delivered the publication version of Steles of the Sky at about 4 AM this morning. It goes to production now, and if all goes well, next April you will have a lovely bundle of pages or pixels in your hot little hand. (I’ve already seen sketches for the cover art. Oh man. This is not going to suck. The roughs are currently my computer desktop. Thank you, Donato Giancola, for another gorgeous cover.)

It’s the longest of the three books at 153,000 words Microsoft word count, and about 190,000 words manuscript word count.

Why the big disparity? Well, here. Because I keep getting asked what the difference between a word processor’s word count and “manuscript word count” is, I explain.

No, take too long. I sum up.

Your word processor will generally give you a word count when you click the proper button. This word count will vary from word processor to word processor, because Scrivener uses a different algorithm than MS Word than Wordperfect than Open Office than what have you. How can algorithms vary? Because wordcount is a judgment call. Is fire-fighter one word or two? Do we count letters and punctuation? MS Word thinks a hash mark for a scene break is a word. Not all word processors agree.

Manuscript word count is calculated a different way. It is not a measure of the number of words in a piece, but the number of “words,” where “words” are bundles of five characters and a space. Like column inches, it’s meant to tell an editor or a compositor how much space the piece is going to take up in a finished work. So a page of dialogue may have far fewer words than a page of description, but the same number of “words.” (Dialogue, you see, has a lot of white space.)

In the era of typewriters, you didn’t calculate your word count by counting every word on the page. You calculated it by setting your margins such that your page had either 24 60 character lines on it, or 25 50 character lines. This gives you (very roughly), ~250 words to a page. (This is one reason why standard manuscript formatting calls for a fixed width serif font such as Courier, double-spaced. Another reason is that fixed width serif fonts, double-spaced, give editors and copyeditors and compositors room to scribble all over your manuscript. Another reason is that you get used to reading it, and picking out errors becomes easier. Proportional fonts (where the letters are different widths) look prettier and save space, but also hide errors and make it harder to guess how much space (how many pages or column inches) a given story will take. Sans-serif fonts make it harder to tell a 1 from an I from an l.

In the ebook/webzine era, the industry seems to be transitioning from manuscript word count to MS word count in general–both in terms of payment for stories that pay by the word (alas! because we get paid more for manuscript counts: they average 15% higher, especially if you’re a sesquipedalian bastard like me) and in terms of award eligibility categories.

It doesn’t matter so much with novels, where you’re not paid by the word and the chief issue is the price of printing additional signatures. (Google it.)

But I find I can’t accurately compare word I do now with work I did ten years ago unless I keep track of the manuscript word count.

(By the way, this makes Steles of the Sky the second-longest book I have ever written, after The Stratford Man. Which was a 290,000 word monster eventually published in two volumes: Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth. The manuscript was 1190 pages long.)


Posted: Monday, April 29th, 2013 @ 3:59 pm
Categories: Writing.
Tags: .
Subscribe to the comments feed if you like. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Words, and counting them.”

  1. Michael Bunning Says:

    Hi Elizabeth,
    Thanks for posting this. It’s something I hadn’t considered before. I wonder how the discrepancy affects short story submissions? I’ve got a story of 7,500 MS Word words, but if I use Manuscript words, it’s nearly 1,000 words longer, which would make it too long for a lot of the places I’ve considered submitting it. I don’t mind being rejected because someone doesn’t like the story, but I don’t want to be rejected because I got the length wrong!

    I guess maybe the word count you enter on manuscripts/online submission forms must count for something?

  2. matociquala Says:

    You might try checking the guidelines for the market and seeing if they specify?

    If not, I’d probably go with manuscript wordcount.