Saturday, January 26, 2013

A word about words: How long should your novel be?

Are you a beginning novelist who's struggling to hit an acceptable word count? Let me let you in on a secret: forget what your word processor tells you. Use this formula instead:

250 x number of properly formatted pages = word count

I grew up in a family that bought everything used. The first Writer's Market I ever owned was already a few years out of date by the time I acquired it. So was most of the other books I ever owned on creative writing. I don't imagine the rules have changed much in the time since, but what most of those books said about word count is strangely absent from the advice I see on the Internet these days, especially in public forums.

Since most of the books I owned on the subject were written before the emergence of word processing programs it was typically suggested that the word count of your novel should be estimated. The rule of thumb was each double-spaced page, with proper margins and fonts, was 250 words long. So, to get the total approximate word count you simply multiply the number of pages by 250. Don't forget that in a final draft (and in published copies) your chapters typically appear on the next available page, a few lines from the top, which sometimes makes the manuscript longer than you anticipated.

Whenever a budding writer asks "How many words are in a novel?" I feel the usual answers are misleading. People will say everything from 50,000-100,000, depending on the market and genre, and say nothing about the way editors use approximate word count. When I submitted my first story to Critters Workshop one of the automated minions informed me there was a huge discrepancy between my own estimated word count and how many words they had counted. (This makes me wonder why I have to fill in the pertinent form at all when the minions can count it for me, but as Burt seems to have his shit together, I'll assume there's a good reason.)

When editors in the old days asked for word count they didn't want to know exactly how many words you had written, but how many pages your book would take to print. Why they didn't just ask for a page count to begin with I'll never know, but by approximating 250 words per page they would have a general idea how big the book would be when they printed it. The fact is every writer has a different style. Grab a hard science fiction novel and any Bukowski book and you'll see the former has a lot more ink on a page than the latter. If Bukowski had the luxury of an automatic word count he might have scratched his head upon learning his novels were considered novellas. Alternatively, that hard science fiction novel would most likely be way, way too long for a standalone book, at least by the word counting standards of people who anonymously answer questions in writing forums and (shudders) Yahoo! Answers.

Seriously, people. Don't use Yahoo! Answers for anything unless you're an idiot kid who can't do his own homework.

So about the novel I'm currently working on: I wanted it to be 360 double-spaced pages long. I'm on page 296 and I still haven't finished a quarter of my outline. This is worrisome because it's exactly 74,000 words using the old formula, which is quickly approaching the limit for first-time novelists (I hear and believe the editors like to see 90,000 or so from a first-timer). Guess how many words my word processor tells me the manuscript is. A little over 52,000.

I'm willing to bet publishers still use the old formula. A quick Google search seems to back me up on this. One of the top results was this blog, which says:

1-inch margins top, bottom, left, and right. This should give you 60 characters per line on average (10 words) and 25 lines per page.

That's almost exactly the shape my manuscript is in. So I'll stick with 250 words a page, thank you. Maybe one day I'll find a use for the automatic word counter, but for now I just don't see it serving any justifiable use for anyone, much less writers.

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