Wednesday, October 5, 2016

If You're Going to Be an Author, Learn to Think in Word Count

I'm going to make an assumption here, and assume that we've all had to write a paper that came with a page count requirement. Maybe it was a term paper in college, or a report you had to write in your senior English class, but we all had to do it. More importantly, we all learned ways to gently massage our page count to make it seem a little longer. A slightly bigger font, tweaked spacing, the inclusion of charts and images, or just adding big, block quotes were all ways for you to eat up space, and make the arbitrary page count the assignment required.

No need to lie about it, we're all friends here.
An unfortunate habit of projects being assigned to us in school with this metric, though, is that a lot of us think in terms of pages when it comes to being authors. When you're talking about a short story, or a novel, you talk about the page count. If someone asks how your project is coming, you tell them what page you're on, or you tell them how many pages you need before it's done.

You probably don't want to hear this, but you should really stop that. For the same reason the U.S. should bite the bullet and switch to the metric system; because a page-based metric is not going to get you very far in the world of publishing.

Word Count is Where It's At

As I mentioned in 3 Tips For Formatting Your Manuscript (So Editors Won't Want to Stab You), page count is a useless metric when we're talking about the publishing industry. Because, as I pointed out in the introductory paragraph, there are a thousand little things that can totally alter page count. You could double-space your work, use a size 14 font instead of a size 12, or simply save your work as a pdf instead of a Word document, and it will change your page total.

But word count, is word count, is word count.

But this? This you can trust.
Not only is word count a more reliable judge for the size of your story, but it is the metric used throughout the publishing industry. Whether you're submitting short stories to an anthology call, or sending a novel to a publisher, they want to know your word count. And if you're self-publishing, you have to follow the program's formatting guidelines. That means that your page count is going to be meaningless, unless you wrote your manuscript using the same guidelines your platform requires.

The bigger benefit of learning to think in word count, as opposed to page count, is that you get a better sense of how long a story takes to tell. Whether it takes 5,000 words, or 50,000 words, thinking in word count lets you get a sense of exactly how much story you can tell within those parameters. That means you're a lot less likely to go over your limit, or to find yourself struggling to get another 10,000 words out of your plot so you can submit your manuscript for review.

While being able to turn a phrase is important, and coming up with brilliant plot twists can make a name for you in certain circles, there are few skills as valuable as plotting out how long your story will take to tell. Much like an architect who gives accurate estimates for a project, authors who have a sense of the scale and scope of their stories will find them easier to complete on time, and at the proper length.

That's all for this weeks' Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it helped some of you out there. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today? All it takes to get sweet swag is to drop at least $1 a month, and in addition to your gift, you get even more content just like this. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

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