On the rare occasion someone asks me a question involving math or a calculation of any kind, I have a standard response: I work with letters, not numbers. That worked until I realized there is an element of math that comes along with being a writer.
Writers who are math-challenged like myself will be happy to know that it’s a simple equation of addition or subtraction—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I’m talking about the length of a manuscript. It’s the second question most people ask me about the books I’m writing (after “what is it about?”). And the answer, much to their surprise, isn’t the number of pages.
One of the first lessons new writers learn is that page numbers simply aren’t talked about in professional circles. That’s because people in the publishing industry have a different way of talking about the length of a manuscript. Its word count.
But why not pages? That’s the way most readers think and talk about the length of a book.
For a simple answer to that question, I took a look at the pages of one of my current manuscripts.
These two pages are both from my manuscript, Face The Music. As you can see, the page on the left has a lot of dialogue, unlike the page on the right. So while those are both two pages, the left page has 221 words and the right page has 348 words.
Two pages, different word counts.
And then of course there are pages like the two below that vary in word count because of the way chapters are formatted, and because sometimes there are pesky last sentences that just don’t fit on the page before.
You can see why the word count of a page can be a more accurate measure of a book’s length than its number of pages.
It’s also worth pointing out that the only way to change a manuscript’s word count is by writing more or editing, but the number of pages can easily be manipulated based on how the document is set up. If the font size is a little bigger or smaller, if the page margins are just a tiny bit wider than the standard sizes, it can affect the number of pages. To help avoid that, there are also industry standards on how a document is supposed to be formatted.
I can remember an assignment from 6th grade in Mr. Dwyer’s science class. We had to write a paper that was 3 pages or 700 words. At the time, I was going through an annoying “tiny handwriting” phase, so I literally counted every single word on my paper’s two pages. Who knew I was really ahead of my time!
There’s another very important reason word count is important to writers. And that’s because it’s important to agents and editors and publishing companies.
The longer a book is, the more it costs to proofread, to edit, to print and to bind. So there’s a financial reason behind it. Plus, readers of particular genres are used to books being a certain length—too short, people might think they didn’t get their money’s worth. Too long and they can be overwhelmed or turned off before they even start to read.
For all of those reasons and more, there are industry standards on acceptable word count ranges by genre.
Young Adult (YA) Fiction: 50k-80k
New Adult Fiction: 60k – 85k
Literary, Commercial and Women’s Fiction: 80k – 110k
Fantasy or Science Fiction: 90k – 125k
Historical Fiction: 100k – 120k
If your word count is below or above the standard range for its genre, chances are an agent will pass up your query without a second look.
When I started querying my first book, the word count was 117,000 words. Too long by industry standards, so I know I was very lucky to have a few agents give it a chance. (I’ve since edited it down to about 95,000 words which is safely in the range.) While there are always exceptions to the rule, it’s better to play it safe and keep your manuscript in the word count range for your genre.
Still, you might be wondering: but what about the number of pages?
The page number of a final printed book is up to the publisher, not the writer. Choices like the the binding, the font and the paper size determine how long that book will be. Still, people are always curious about how the word count of a manuscript translates to page numbers.
The question came up in one of my writing groups and a few of the published authors shared their final word count and the number of pages in their printed books (e-books are different). For those who are interested, here’s what they shared:
66k words, 262 printed pages
72k words, 275 printed pages
95k words, 299 printed pages
96k words, 304 printed pages
107k words, 317 printed pages
Based on that small sample size (I did a little bit of math!) it seems like the average is 296 words per page, which is pretty close to the industry standard of 250 words per page.
But that’s enough math for one day. Again, I’m much more comfortable working with letters than numbers!