The old rule of thumb for estimating word count is obsolete

The old rule of thumb for estimating word count is obsolete
Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash

A reader writes to ask:

Can you enlighten me on how to determine word count in a standard-format manuscript? Back as a young journalist, I learned the “10 'words’ to the line” method of determining a manuscript’s length, with every four pages being roughly 1,000 “words” in length. However, my current novel editor—a beginner just starting his own indie publishing house—says the work is far too long and has had me cut it down to 275 pages in standard manuscript format. I peg such a manuscript at 66,000 words in length, whereas he puts it at 91,000 (based solely on the computer’s exact word count).

This seems silly to me, since if I take my 275-page novel and put only ONE WORD on EACH PAGE, my novel will print out at over 91,000 pages <!> while still coming in as a 91K manuscript. This would seem to show the fallacy of relying on the computer count. However, he is adamant that his way is correct, and so I have very painfully trimmed the novel from 127,000 words down to 66,000 words—which he calls 91K!

Am I a fossil for doing the word count math using “250 words to the page”? Are we now supposed to be relying on the computer for its exact word count? Any help you can provide regarding this matter would be greatly appreciated.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your editor is right. Publishers today use the actual computer-generated word count, not the old rule-of-thumb estimate.

That rule of thumb is what editors once used to calculate how many pages or column-inches a given piece of writing would fill. It worked because most everyone was using a typewriter where ten characters took up exactly an inch and about 25 double-spaced lines fit on a page. If you change any of those factors (for instance, by using a proportional font that lets you fit more characters on a line), then the estimate of 250 words per page no longer holds and the rule of thumb is no good.

The example you provide does not expose the fallacy of using an actual computer word count. It actually exposes the fallacy in your own argument. Do you really imagine that your hypothetical 91,000-page manuscript should count as 22,750,000 words (91,000 × 250) for editorial purposes? Of course not. It’s still 91,000 words, no matter how you format it. Your rule of thumb was designed to yield a reasonable approximation of the actual number of words in a piece, not to ignore the objective reality of how those words are presented. The way you’re using it, the rule becomes nothing more than a gussied-up page count, and that’s useless without taking other factors into consideration.

We have something better than an estimated word count now, something it should be easy for everyone to agree on: an accurate computer word count. Let’s give your editor the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows how big a book he can afford to publish. For him, that’s in the ballpark of 90,000 actual words. If you want to think of your novel as 66K, you can but—well, you’re wrong, and your number is misleading.

But ultimately, does it matter? Whatever number you slap on it doesn’t change the content of the manuscript itself, and it has no effect on the size of the actual physical object that is the end result of this whole process. Ask yourself instead, is the book stronger because you cut it down to size? Are you happier with it now? Can you live with these changes? If so, great! If not, then the word count is the wrong thing to get exercised about.  


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