What about word counts?

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 The Write Question is a weekly video podcast all about writing. Today’s question? What about word counts? If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question.

Transcript: 

What about word counts? That’s the topic I’m addressing today in The Write Question. I’m Daphne Gray-Grant, the Publication Coach, still in pandemic mode.

I have a question from Emma Hansen, a writer based in Columbus, North Dakota. Here’s what she’s asked by email….

“I’m working on a writing assignment and I haven’t been given a page count. What would you do in such a situation? And how important is it to hit a specific number of words?”

Thanks for the great questions, Emma. You didn’t give me any details about the nature of the writing assignment but I wonder if perhaps you’re a university student?

I’ve been struck many times by how often universities insist on talking about page counts, when this is truly an idiotic and thoroughly imprecise measure.

Word count per page, of course, is going to vary depending on the size of the type, the size of the margins, and the amount of line spacing. I know that a single page can be anywhere between 250 and 375 words. That might not sound like a big difference, but multiply it by 100 pages and that’s a variation of some 12,500 words!

So here is my number one tip to university students everywhere: Always count words instead of pages. And, in fact, you don’t have to do the counting yourself. If you’re using MS Word, the software will do it for you, right at the bottom of every screen. So I’m pleading with your professors to give you your assignments in word counts rather than page numbers. But if they don’t, just do the multiplication yourself. Writing will be a lot easier that way.

Now, if they won’t give you any idea about what sort of length they are requesting, they are doing you no favours. If, for example, you were asked to write a paper about Shakespeare, you could write a 250-word encyclopedia entry. Or you could write a 2,500- word essay about one of his plays or sonnets. Or you could write a 25,000-word thesis. Or you could write a 250,000-word book. Which does your professor want?

As a first step, if the professor doesn’t volunteer the information, be sure to ask. And if they still won’t answer, try suggesting a number yourself and see how they react.

And if they won’t respond to that kind of entreaty, I suggest you give yourself some sort of goal, so you can at least frame the research you’ll need to do. Don’t ever write without some sort of word count goal in mind, because how will you know when to stop?

Now, while we’re talking about word counts, let me give a few numbers to people who might be writing books. The standard expected length for a novel or non-fiction book is about 70,000 words. Fantasy and Sci-Fi writers can go a little longer, say to 100,000 words.

If you’re a person who’s writing blogs, you want each entry to be at least 300 words and probably closer to 750 to 950 words. There is some evidence that really long blogs get more traction and are more widely shared so consider the occasional post of 2,500 words or more.

I don’t want to encourage you to obsess on word count, Emma, but I think it is important to pay some serious attention to it.

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the English novelist and dramatist Henry Fielding: “A newspaper consists of just the same number of words, whether there be any news in it or not.”

Emma, I hope the Fielding quote illustrates the entirely arbitrary nature of word counts. The issue is not so much what suits the content but what suits the publication vehicle. If you’re writing for school, you need to please your professors. If you’re writing for the real world, you need to please your clients, publishers or readers.

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If you’d like to learn more about how to make writing a happier and more rewarding process, check out my latest book Your Happy First Draft. I don’t sell it in bookstores or via Amazon. The only place to buy it is on my website, link on the screen below and in the show notes. 

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Your Happy First Draft

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