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When I submit a manuscript, I'm supposed to include a wordcount. I understand that this is not simply the number of words in the document (as calculated by Word or Google Docs wordcount tools), but something else.

I've found different and contradictory explanations of how to calculate this. What's the right way?

  • What I do for my essays is type the suggested word limit for each heading/section, then the actual count at the end of each paragraph as I write it. When I'm done, I add up these 'actual counts' and have my total word limit as for my course, as reference/bibliography list and appendix, etc, are not included. – amanda witt Feb 11 '14 at 4:40
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In the context of a formatted manuscript, the "word count" isn't the precise number of words, nor is it directly inferred from the number of pages.

What you're actually doing here is finding the number of lines your manuscript will take, because a line with just a few words on it still takes up as much page space as a line that's full to the end. But even this description is imprecise, because you need to adjust this calculation around the specifics of how you formatted your particular document. (Intuitively: if I produce two manuscripts which are identical, but one has wider margins then the other, then that one will have "more lines" in the ms. -- but they'll obviously be identical in final layout.)

There are different ways to make this estimate. Here's what I've used.

  1. Format your manuscript for submission. Among other things, this means:
    • You'll be using a monospaced font (where each character is the same width, e.g. Courier New),
    • Each full page will have the same number of lines on it. (You'll turn off "Widows and Orphans" - that's the option that prevents dangling lines on their lonesome by shifting lines from one page to another. You want that option off for your MS.)
  2. So now every page has the same number of lines, and every line has a cap of how many characters long it can be.
  3. Choose a "full" line, one that begins on one end of the page and reaches all the way to the end. Count how many characters are in the line (in Word, you can just check the column for the last character).
    • You can artificially "create" a full line by typing aaaaaaaa... until you fill up one full line, just to count. Make sure not to start with a tab indentation!
  4. Divide your number of characters-per-line by 6. This is your Words-Per-Line.
    • So if a full line is 60 characters long, your words-per-line is 10.
  5. Count the number of lines in one page. This is your Lines-Per-Page.
  6. Your Wordcount = Words-Per-Line x Lines-Per-Page x Numer-Of-Pages

Other variations exist, and they're all fine - wordcount is an estimate, not a precise calculation.

You'll find more information on manuscript formatting and wordcount estimation here:

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I calculated the word count (words per line for 10 lines divided by 10 times the number of lines per page times the number of pages, rounding the product) for Dan Brown's Origin (231,000 words), Robert Ludlum's The Prometheus Deception (210,000), Daniel Silva's The Black Widow (180,000), Brad Thor's Code of Conduct (166,000), Michael Connelly's The Crossing (129,000), and Vince Flynn's Enemy of the State (147,000).

Then I used the other method to count words on a manuscript (250 words times the number of pages, but I substituted 500 since the above books are single spaced). I got 230,000, 255,000, 264,000, 180,000, 194,000, 194,000 respectively.

Obviously formatting of the books is different than the manuscript counting method (250 times number of pages, modified here to 500 times number of pages for single spaced books).

I cannot explain the huge difference between what agents/editors claim are "usual" novel word counts and what I see in the market as I have presented here. Every book I selected off my shelf exceeds the so-called maximum of 110,000 words for commercial literature or 90,000 words per thriller novel.

Even Dan Brown's first novel Digital Fortress is 159,000 words and 186,000 respectively using each method. That's 49,000 words or more too much for a first novel according to nearly everything I read on here. Then there is the actual word count by MS Word which I'm advised it not used by agents and editors.

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Check with the place you're submitting with.

Before using general advice you should first check if the place you're submitted has a preferred method of calculation. If you have a point of contact, ask them.

Obviously, if you can't find anything official then you'll have to fall back on a more general method like the others mentored here, but check first.

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