#7: Word Count is ALL That Counts.

***NOTE: I will not be posting this Thursday – Christmas Eve. My prayer for you all is that the Season brings you exactly what you need!***

After asking me what my books are about, the next most common question is always: how many pages is it? Because that is how readers think. But now you’re an author and you need to shift your reference.

The number of pages is determined by margin size, the style of font you use, the size of font you use, line spacing, indentation spaces, hyphenation, paragraph breaks, page breaks, even the view you use to work in.

So to make things consistent, authors, agents, editors and publishers speak in word count.

Your computer program will count words for you, so that’s easy. (Ignore character count; that only matters in Twitter and texting.) And when you set goals for yourself, set them in the context of words, not pages. I do wonder when I see aspiring authors post, “I wrote five pages today!” how much writing they actually completed. Better to say: I wrote 3,000 words today!

What DOESN’T matter: the font, color, size, margins, etc. that you choose to work in. Choose what you like! You need to be visually engaged with this document because you’ll spend hours staring at it. When the time comes to submit your manuscript, you can adapt it then.

That said, there is some formatting that – for simplicity’s sake – you might want to start off using:

  • Don’t break words (hyphenate) at the end of a line.
  • Use a 3-5 space indention.
  • Don’t double space between paragraphs or sentences.
  • Use the # symbol centered in the blank line to indicate a scene break.

What DOES matter: total word count. Is your completed manuscript the right length (80,000 – 95,000 words, give or take) for today’s traditional publication requirements? Until you’re Diana Gabaldon or Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, you will be squeezed into the mold which current publishing economics dictate.

If your story is just too long to tell within that word count limit, consider breaking it into separate books of a series. If you do so, be aware that each book must be able to stand on its own. That means, if someone picks up the second book without reading the first one, it has to make sense. It must have its own plot and character arcs. But no “info dumps” to catch the readers up, or they won’t read Book One!

This word count restriction exists because all paperback books must be the same size, and fit into the same cover templates, boxes, trucks and on the same shelves. Whine all you want (trust me, I have) but that is the reality of the business today.

Electronic publishing is coming quickly, and e-books don’t have those limitations. But for now – in 2010 – if you want to play in the big boys’ sandbox you have to play with their buckets.

Advice about chapter length: Michael Stackpole, a very successful fantasy author, advises writers to keep chapters under 3,000 words in order to keep readers moving along. If a reader pages forward and is almost to the end of a chapter, they’ll keep going. And if that chapter ends on a hook, they’ll turn another page. Before they know it, it’s 2:00am and they finished the book. And the next day when someone asks them why they look tired, they’ll say, “I couldn’t put the book down.”


Merry Christmas everyone!

2 Responses to “#7: Word Count is ALL That Counts.”

  1. 1 Donna Goode 12/21/2009 at 2:48 PM

    Thanks for another very engaging post with good sound advice…as usual! Merry Christmas, Kris!

  2. 2 kristualla 12/21/2009 at 9:07 PM

    Thanks for your positive comments! 🙂

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Authorpreneur Kris Tualla


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