Long before a book is printed, while the text is still in manuscript form, editors at publishing houses speak in terms of word count, not page count. An appropriate word count for a project depends on the kind of book. A picture book editor might think in terms of 0–750 words. An editor acquiring young-adult fantasy novels will consider anything from about 80,000 words and up. Thrillers, graphic novels, romances—their editors all have target ranges for the length of book readers expect. There are always exceptions, of course.
Page counts, on the other hand, are for printed books. Designers and production editors use a manuscript’s word count to estimate how many pages the published book will be, taking into account how they want it to look: how large the pages will be, how much white space is wanted, whether illustrations will add to the page count, etc.
Why then, at the querying stage, are writers almost always asked to submit a set number of pages instead of a set number of words? I have no idea. Maybe it’s a habit from the time before automated word counts, when writers still put paper manuscripts in the mail.
What Agents and Editors Want
Agents and editors want what they want. In an initial query letter, they always want to know your manuscript’s total word count. But if they respond by asking you to submit a full or partial manuscript, they ask for pages, not words. Sometimes the instructions are vague: “10 pages.” And sometimes they’re not: “Please submit 50 pages. Make sure your manuscript is double-spaced and properly formatted. I prefer 12 pt. Times New Roman, but other fonts are fine as long as the text is clear and legible. Do not use Courier. Please be sure to include in your manuscript formatting: A title page with the book’s title, author’s name, and contact info; page numbers in the header or footer; page breaks between chapters . . .”
So how do you know whether your pages equal their pages?
How Many Words to a Page?
In the United States and Canada, the generally accepted industry guideline for words per double-spaced, 8.5 × 11–inch page is 250–300. (The standard A4 paper size in the UK is slightly larger, but the guideline is the same.) Your word processor can help you calculate the average number of words per page in your manuscript.* Find the total number of words and divide it by the number of pages. For instance (grabbing the nearest MS), 62,000 words divided by 202 pages equals just under 307 words per page. Close enough.
Why Doesn’t My Word Count Work?
If your word count per page is much lower or higher than the guideline, there might be an obvious reason. For instance, if your book features a lot of short lines of dialogue, your words per page will be low; no need to worry. If you tend to write in long paragraphs, your words per page might be high. In that case, you might consider adding paragraph breaks wherever possible. If nothing else, it’s a kindness to readers.
Likewise, writers who use mainly short words will tend to get more per page than those who lean on a thesaurus.
Your margins, type size, and font will also affect words per page. Agents and editors who specify tend to ask for 1-inch margins on all sides and a classic font like 12-point Times New Roman or 11-point Arial. It’s not unusual for submission guidelines to request this exact formatting. If your manuscript diverges significantly from the expected word count, make some adjustments and run the calculation again.
How to Cheat
If yours is a book with a lot of dialogue, you might feel you deserve to submit eleven pages instead of ten. Or if the action in your novel doesn’t really take off until page 11, you might feel justified in slipping in an extra page. Or . . . it might cross your mind that if you just make the type a little smaller, you can fit more words per page.
Smaller type is the traditional scam for getting more words per page, but creative cheats find other ways. They might go for more lines per page by squishing the line spacing. Instead of proper double-spacing, like this,
they go for this:
Word spacing can also be squished:
A writer wanting to pad a skimpy manuscript can just as easily stretch the line or word spacing, increase the type size, and make the margins larger.
Are you tempted? Try to resist. Agents and editors are onto schemes like this.
What to Do
Instead of artificially padding or squashing your manuscript, examine your motives. Stop thinking about quantity, and inspect for quality. Why aren’t your first ten, or twenty, or fifty pages just right? Is all that dialogue effective? Is there not enough action up front? Is your book too long or too short?
Word count isn’t the first thing on an agent’s or editor’s mind when they consider your manuscript. They mainly just want to know if readers will keep reading. Let the computer count the words; it’s your job to keep us reading.
* In Microsoft Word, there are several ways to check your document’s word count. You can customize your status bar to keep a running count of pages and words (among many other things). The count will change as you type. If you highlight a chunk of text with your cursor, it will show you the number of words you selected. For this image of my status bar, I highlighted 275 words:
In Windows, you can also access the Word Count box by pressing Ctrl+Shift+G. Or go to the Review tab and click on Word Count.
Photo of abacus by Paul Schadler, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Carol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.
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