What Is a Word?

Written by Chuck Rothman

When you submit a story, you’re expected to include a count of words.

Now, this sounds simple. Press the “Word Count” button on your word processor and there it is. Unfortunately, this count is likely to be wrong.

Why? It all depends on your definition of “word.”

To a computer, a word is anything with space around it. “To a tee” is three words. “Antidisestablishmentarianism” is one. Simple. Too simple.

Because, in publishing, you are most concerned with space: the space a story or article will take up when published. And the computer method is inaccurate. Some words are long, some words are short. So, years ago, publishers set up a standard definition: a word is six characters (including spaces).

Now the length of the word didn’t matter. You could determine the length of a story without worrying about the length of the words in it. “Antidisestablishmentarianism” is just short of five words. “To a tee” is two and a third. You get more accurate counts.

But there’s another factor. Consider this exchange of dialog:

"I'm pregnant," he said.

A computer would call this five words. A magazine editor would count it as 25.

Why? Because the two-line exchange takes up as much vertical space as two full lines of text. An editor has to have some way to account for short paragraphs.

So, years ago, a standard method was developed to count words in a story:

  1. Count the number of characters in an average, mid-paragraph line (BTW, this all assumes a monospaced font. If you’re using a proportional font, the number of characters can vary immensely, throwing off the numbers and word count).
  2. Divide by six. This is the number of words per line.
  3. Count the number of lines on a page. (This includes any # for blank lines.)
  4. Multiply #2 by #3 to get the number of words per page.
  5. Multiply by the number of full pages (plus any fractional pages), to get the total number of words.
  6. Round the number to the nearest hundred. Authors tend to round up; editors round down. This is the number you put on the front page of the manuscript.

There’s a second reason to use this other than making it easier for editors: this method usually gives higher word counts (My count is generally about 20% higher than the computer’s). Higher word counts mean higher payments. It’s perfectly OK with the editors to use this method, so you might as well take advantage.