Revising Leah

September 15, 2008

What Is Your Word Count?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 4:05 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Lately, I’ve made a point to visit some of the other WordPress blogs about writing, especially those blogs which, like mine, are chronicling writers’ work as they create their own novels. They’re interesting to read; I like writing about my own writing process, and I find I like reading about others’ writing processes too.

One thing that I’ve noticed in most people’s blogs is that they make a big deal about their word count, and some folks even have word count goals for their projects — not only an overall goal but also daily writing goals.

When I started writing during my teenage years, I didn’t use a word processor. I wrote everything out by hand, and when you write that way, counting words just isn’t an option unless you have a whole lot of time to kill. So I counted pages, and, in my mind, 200 pages was the minimum page requirement for a novel. That continues to be my mindset today; I think more in terms of pages than words. Frequent visitors to this blog will find that I refer to my page count more often than my word count.

Right now, for the record, Leah is 231 pages long (or about 83,500 words). Claiming that the text is “X” number of pages, I guess, doesn’t really mean much to readers of this blog. The question becomes, “What constitutes a ‘page’?” For example, altering the font size, the font style, the page margins, or the line spacing can all affect the page count, so what does it mean when I say “231 pages”? The answer is that I have formatted the document file in exactly the same way that I formatted The Spring when I published it — the same font style, same page size, everything. Again, for the record, here are my specs:

  • Garamond font, size 12
  • 34 lines of text on each page
  • Fixed line spacing set at .22″ between lines
  • Approximately 370 words per page
  • Pages set at 9″ tall X 6″ wide
  • Half-inch margins for the top, bottom and outer margins. Three-quarter inch margins for the inner margin.

So Leah’s 231 page count is perfectly comparable to The Spring’s 263 pages, and 231 pages is how long the book would be if I published it today.

But whether I’m going by pages or total words, I believe that an obsession with one’s word or page count can have a detrimental effect on one’s writing. I try not to worry about how physically long my story is. I believe that what’s most important is that the story is as long as it needs to be. A novel that is 1000 pages long is not necessarily a better novel than one that is 150 pages long. Since I began this revising project 5 months ago, I’ve cut at least 30 pages of material from my novel, not because I’m trying to meet a specific page goal, but because I didn’t need those 30 pages. The material that I cut was superfluous, repetitive, or it contradicted other elements in the story. When I’m finished, the story will be however long it needs to be, not a word more or a word less.

I’m sure not everyone shares my point of view. If you are writing a novel and counting your words as you go, does it really help you to know how long your story is, or do you think it puts undo pressure on you as a writer to reach a certain overall word count?



  1. When I wrote my first novel, Brown Girls, I set myself an arbitrary daily output of 1,000 words. Pretty much because it sounded like a nice, even number.

    But if I produced less, my wife would then question what the heck I had been doing all day. So 1,000 words it was, if only to avoid being labeled a no-good layabout.

    The final manuscript was 112,000 words. One comment I received while trying to find a publisher was along the lines of, “112,000 words? Why would we publish something that long?”

    So, apparently, some people base their decisions on quantity and not quality.

    When I decided to attempt placing the book with more of a mainstream publisher (and blog about that effort), I did yet another complete edit and subsequently dropped about 24,000 words.

    Prompting my wife to then comment: “I hope you didn’t cut out the good parts.”

    I guess, in the end, you just have to find the word count that tells your story and trust other people will learn to live with it.

    Good luck with your book. I’ll check back to see how you’re progressing.


    Comment by bitemymoko — September 15, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

  2. Yes! “Quality vs. quantity” is a good way of thinking about it. It’s really not a matter of how much one is writing, but what is being written.

    Comment by jmreep — September 15, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  3. I never used to estimate where I thought my novels would end at until very recently, and for me it’s more a guide as to how long it’s going to take me to get there – with a baby due in November it helps me set a realistic daily writing goal in order to have the thing finished before then. It might come under, it might go over – either way I’m not really worried, it’ll finish when its the right time for it to happen. I’d hope that most people have total word count goals that are flexible.
    As for the daily word count goals? Well, I know I can write 1.5K in under an hour if I work on it, so it keeps me moving forward. I love to write anyway so I often go over that goal, it’s a number to make sure I am putting some time into what I love each and every day. Having goals helps to push me through on my off days, and spurs me on when I’m having good ones, either way I feel fantastic when I hit them :-)
    Thanks for clarifying about what your page is, I do find it hard to know how much a ‘page’ holds, as you say, there are so many ways you can format one these days!

    Comment by J.C — September 16, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  4. My way of formatting a page certainly isn’t typical. What I’ve done is borrow the template that I used when I wrote and self-published The Spring. The other day, just out of curiosity, I adjusted the Leah document to see what it looked like if I were to change the page size to the default 11″ X 8.5″. Everything else being equal, the novel was only about 150 pages. So it’s all relative.

    Comment by jmreep — September 16, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

  5. I find that it helps to have a “tangible” goal — kind of a light at the end of the tunnel when you’re having a bad streak (that week or so where you sit in front of the computer for hours and can’t seem to get anything coherent written). That being said, the overall word count goal is somewhat maleable — I expect my first draft will be around 110,000 words, but that’s just kind of a guideline. I know there are some superfluous parts which will get cut in the first editing process. The count may end up higher or a little lower at the end of the first draft, but it also keeps me in check — if I see that I’m going way past the 110,000 mark, I’ll have to reevaluate what’s going on in the book to see if I’m getting too tangentile (after all, while I’m writing the book for me, I want it to be published as well).

    Comment by Justin — September 16, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  6. It’s ironic that I ran across your blog today. I have been pondering word count. I write children’s books and while I may not write as much in a day, I find myself struggling to find the right words at times. Thinking like a five year old can be difficult at times. I do have several ideas YA books and that is what I am going to concentrate on after I have finished the two picture books that are in progress.

    Do I count the words I write? No. Do I feel that I should? Well, that depends. When your book only needs to be around 1000 words, it’s not relative. I do write more, but then edit myself silly. I need to add, and I am guesstimating, about 1000 words to the book I am working on right now. Then I will pare it down to 1000 words.

    I am also getting ready make a “book” by stapling together copy paper in book form. Then I will cut out my paragraphs and paste them in. That way, for my genre, it’s more “real”.

    Comment by Lisa — September 25, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

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