Proper Manuscript Format : Word Counts

A reader writes to ask:

I'm getting close to done writing a manuscript, set to your specs for 250 words per page, and it's threatening to break 600 manuscript pages (about 150k, assuming no half-pages). That's going to be a heavy stack of paper when I get it printed out. There seems to be some empty room on the pages as it stands, and I'm thinking of squeezing it into 500 words per page by increasing the line length and quantity, just so I can save some trees. Would you recommend for or against this plan? Do you have any other suggestions for my big stack dilemma?

I can sympathize with your desire to reduce your big stack, if not for environmental reasons then at least to keep postage costs in check. But when you look into your heart of hearts I'm sure you know what I'm going to tell you. Six hundred pages for a 150,000-word manuscript sounds just about right.

I've examined the sample page you sent along with your question, and honestly it looks perfectly fine to me. You're using a 12-point Courier font. You're averaging about 60 characters per line, which tells me that your left and right margins are set properly. You have 25 lines of text on the page, plus a header, which means the top and bottom margins are good. In short, you're doing everything right. You're just having a hard time digesting the fact that your manuscript is so big.

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I wrote the original version of my manuscript formatting guide in 1993, modeling it after a much older two-page guide I received from Damon Knight in 1985. Back in those days, even for those who'd made the switch to composing prose on computers, the goal of formatting was to produce a document for submission that looked as much as possible like it had sprung to life rolling through the platen of a typewriter, offspring of holy intercourse between paper, typebar, and ink ribbon.

The world of writing and publishing has changed plenty in these past seventeen, or twenty-five, or God knows how many years. A manuscript used to be the mere blueprint for a printed book or story, instructions in a coded language to the typesetter who would laboriously rework the entire thing into clean, finished type. Now the gap between manuscript and book has shrunk to the size of a computer file. Electronic submissions mean that the only physical keystroke in the life history of a given letter in a published work may well be the one executed by the author himself.

The accepted and acceptable standards of manuscript formatting have evolved to reflect this. Proportional fonts are used more and more in manuscripts, while typographical tricks that were necessary on typewriters now no longer make sense. More and more writers are submitting manuscripts that would have looked unacceptable a decade ago, and more and more editors don't mind this one bit. With the almost complete dominance of the word processor, topics like word-count approximation and end-of-line hyphenation are no longer relevant to most of us. It was long past time to update my format guide to reflect this new reality.

You old-school writers and editors, don't worry. I won't abandon my Courier font and double sentence spacing (more on that topic in a future post) without a fight. If I have my way, the manuscripts I produce fifty years from now will look the same as the ones I produce today. But I did want to acknowledge that mores are changing, and that not everyone agrees anymore about what proper manuscript format even means.

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A reader writes to ask:

I am submitting a short story collection, but the publisher requests just the first 50 pages.

How do I handle this in terms of what I would write for word count? Do I include the number of words in first 50 pages? The entire manuscript?

You mentioned including a list of where stories had been published. What should this list look like? A simple 1, 2, 3? Should I title the page?

In your cover letter—and this goes for novels as well as collections—you should mention the word count for the full manuscript. That's the information your editor needs in order to understand the size of the book you're proposing. There is no need to give a word count for the 50-page excerpt.

I'm not aware of a hard-and-fast rule for how to list the publication history for your stories, so use your best judgment. I would simply include a page headed "Publication History" at the end of the sample pages. (You can indicate in your cover letter that such a list will follow the excerpt.) It would be fine to single-space within entries on this page, and numbering them is not required. To get even fancier, you could use hanging indents for each item in the list.

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A reader writes to ask:

I read somewhere that if you format properly you should get 25 lines per page, but I consistantly get 24. So when I use Word to give me a word count on 141 pages, I get 28k, but when I do it the way I think publishers want a word count for novels, which is by multiplying the number of pages times 250, I get 35k. That's a big difference.

I followed all of your rules, so I don't understand what I'm doing wrong.

Indulge me a moment, please, while I review a couple of standard typographical measures. The smallest unit in typography is called the point, which measures exactly 1/72 of an inch. Twelve points equals 1 pica. Therefore, we have 72 points per inch, and 6 picas per inch.

A standard typewriter uses 12-point type, which is a measure of the height of the metal block on which each individual letter is cast. This also equals the height of a each line of printed type the typewriter produces, meaning that a typewritten line is 12 points high, or 1 pica, or 1/6 of an inch. Single-spaced, this means you can fit six lines of type per inch. Double-spaced, you get three lines per inch.

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A reader writes to ask:

I've been speaking with an agent who has expressed keen interest in my sci-fi/humor novel, and what she's telling me is that while she really digs it, the manuscript is simply coming in too long for most publishers to take a look at. Unbeknowst to me (rookie mistake), I need to reformat the mansucript using Courier 12 point, which is blowing my page count sky-high (I wrote in Times Roman).

The agent is also telling me that I need to get it down below 480 pages Courier for publishers to be willing to look at it. My mansucript is 120,000 words and change, but is coming in at 730 pages Courier 12 point. Any thoughts about anything I might be doing wrong, if anything?

Is she on point? Is the page count more significant than the word count?

I hate being so close and yet feeling like I might be so far.

I'd appreciate any feedback you can offer me.

A lot of points to address here in this message! As far as your mechanical problem goes, without looking at your manuscript I can't be sure what you're doing wrong in your word-processing program that's making your page count so high. Check your margins carefully to be sure they are 1 inch all the way around. Check to be sure you're double-spacing your text and not triple-spacing it, because that alone would explain why your page count is about 50% higher than it should be.

480 pages in Courier 12 is going to yield a manuscript of between 120,000 and 140,000 words, depending on your margins, so your novel should be fine as-is, without any cuts, if you can just get your formatting problems ironed out.

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A reader writes to ask:

I've been writing a novel over the past year, and with the help on your site as well as a few other sites, I've been converting it into manuscript format. However, after having copied over the first two chapters, I've compared the word count from MS Word with the publisher method of word counting, I'm getting a difference of a thousand words (10.2k to 9.2k), which'll become a 10,000-word difference at Chapter 20. Is there usually that kind of overestimation, or is there a problem with my formatting? I've got a max of 60 characters per line and 25 lines per page, and I put chapter titles 2 inches into the page. Is there anything I should change to make the estimated word count more accurate, or is changing the line or page length going to set off any red flags with the publishers? I would appreciate your input.

That kind of overestimation is fine and expected. A publisher's word count is not at all identical to the one Word will give you, and is more useful to the publisher in determining how many pages that eventual published book (or story or article) will run.

Just offer your best estimate of a word count. No publisher is going to penalize you for that. In fact, since book publishers don't pay by the word, it's probably the last thing they're going to pay a lot of attention to. In addition, in the event that your novel is accepted for publication, you'll likely be submitting a Word document to your editor at some point. If an exact word count is ever needed, he or she can get that information directly from your document.

 
Looking for Bill's original properly formatted article on proper manuscript format? Click here.
Proper Manuscript Format Illustrated - Click here.
FLOG is Hugo- and Nebula-nominated author William Shunn's blog on manuscript formatting and preparation for fiction writers. It features formatting questions from real readers and writers like you. Submit your questions to format at shunn dot net. Identitying information will remain private. We regret that we can't always respond individually to submissions, and that we can't answer every question we receive.

About Word Counts

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Proper Manuscript Format in the Word Counts category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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