No accounting for words

The Instant Man notes:

Different word processors generate different word counts on same document. Slight differences in the algorithm turn out to make a difference.

And he links to this analysis, which may be of interest to legal types mandated to keep it short.

Once again, I’m (slightly) ahead of the curve. From last summer, while I was working on what turned into a novella:

I am becoming persuaded that every editor in existence counts them differently. Google is full of people who have found discrepancies between how many words they think they wrote and how many words Microsoft Word thinks they wrote.

I didn’t pay any attention to this phenomenon, of course, until I landed here. I wrote The Sparkle Chronicles in the WordPress editor, since it’s the one I use most often these days. The three chapters published here so far are listed at 3278 + 2830 + 3886 = 9994 words. WordPress says 3186 + 2727 + 3720 = 9633.

Final word count was 18,589 — more or less. And I must rehash this hash from the winter before, simply as a rebuke to myself:

I seriously doubt I could put together a decent 4000-word short story.

Well, you can’t win ’em all.


  1. Mark Alger »

    16 January 2013 · 8:32 am

    In publishing, word counts aren’t based on the number of times you hit the space bar (or make a character group) anyway. You’d get a more-accurate count by taking the character count (including spaces) and dividing by 6. That’s because the word count is essentially relevant only — or mostly — when it comes to column inches (in periodicals) or pages (in books).

    Take your basic SMF page. 8.5 x 11, with 1.x” margins left and right, .75″ top and 1.0-1.25″ at bottom. Typed double-spaced in 12-point courier — 10 characters per inch. If your L&R margins are 1″ exactly, MOST of the time (YMMV), you’ll get a line of 60 characters. That’s ten words. If you get 50 lines per page and are typing double-spaced, that means 25 lines of actual — you know — type, or 250 words. 10 pages is 2500 words. 100 is 25,000. A novel is 200 pages, and goat-chokers start at 400 pages in SMF (Standard Manuscript Format).

    In writers’ circles, there is much discussion of the finer points of all this. But the bottom line is that, if you set your document up in SMF, the relevant word count won’t come from the program’s WORD count, but from the LINE count x 10.

    So, you can see, how your word processor arrives at a word count is only semi-relevant anyway.


  2. Mark Alger »

    16 January 2013 · 8:37 am

    A semi-good way to tighten prose is to take advantage of SMF to “bum the code” — to put it in programmer’s parlance.

    Your goal is to cut the number of lines in SMF to an irreducible minimum without substantially damaging the story. The technique involves editing your text, line-by-line, to eliminate single-word wraps, to simplify phrasing, choose shorter (and presumably less obscure) words, and eliminate unnecessary words and phrases (of which you’ll find shockingly large amounts).

    The goal is to cut down the number of lines by these methods. Of course, the method is not the reason you’re doing this. The reason you’re doing it is to tighten the prose, make it sharper and clearer. Cleaner. More comprehensible. And it’s amazing (to me, at least) how well it works.


  3. McGehee »

    16 January 2013 · 9:20 am

    Mark’s got a good point. When I was in college it was drummed into us that if we were required to write 1,000 words on something that meant four pages.

    By the time I was graduating the standard assignment no longer went for word count and simply described format and page count. Of course in those days such papers were typed, not word-processed, so stated format guidelines could be much simpler.

  4. CGHill »

    16 January 2013 · 10:10 am

    And guess who sat there, counting word by word until the end of the last page?


  5. Joseph Hertzlinger »

    17 January 2013 · 12:14 am

    Can we have word count limits for Federal legislation?

  6. CGHill »

    17 January 2013 · 6:59 am

    Certainly no bill that exceeds the length of the original Constitution (4,440 words or so) should ever be introduced.

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