Making Word Counts Count

Cynthia Ruchti

Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

Word counts. They ramp the tension for writers on deadlines. They confound new writers who discover too late that the average contemporary romance is not 400,000 words, as are their debut unpublished epics. Word counts are exacting in devotionals and magazine articles and inexact in almost everything else. But inexact doesn’t mean “not even close.”

Agents often receive queries or proposals for adult books that list a word count as (example) 23,591 words.

Cue Deep Agent-Sigh.

word count abacusI used to cause those sighs. As an author, before I understood that studying the industry and its requirements formed part of my assignment as a writer, I wrote stories that were neither full-length novels or novellas. I peppered queries and proposals and conversations with editors and agents at conferences with words like, “My novel is currently 82,377 words long.” Or, I would add the word approximately in front of the 82,377 number–approximately 82,377 words–in case I decided to change the name of the town from Liberty to Liberty Square (an extra word every time the town’s name appeared in the book. My count would be off by dozens!).

Cue the sigh of whoever was sitting across the desk/table from me.

I don’t remember when I first learned this tidbit of information, but it removed an entire layer of writer anxiety.

A book length word count is already an approximation.

“No, I got it from my computer. I calculates it for me. To the word.”

It’s an approximation because the manuscript you wrote is your best effort. Its word count will change–at least slightly, and maybe radically–before it appears in book form.

Useful skill we learned in school: rounding up or down.

Writers aren’t all math whizzes, but most of us remember how to round a number up or down. We have permission to implement that skill when listing word counts of our manuscripts (at least for the Books & Such Literary Management team).

Especially in the query or proposal stage, the best word count is basically an indicator of how well you know the genre in which you’re writing and if you can tell a story within that prescribe word count. Does a prospective agent or editor care if your contemporary novel manuscript is 85,000 or 84,499? If it’s 85,302? No. Why not?

  • The rounded off number indicates that you know the typical length of a contemporary novel and yours is close to that.
  • Your 84,499 word count will change instantly when a title page is added.
  • For EVERY book, the word count changes when the editing process begins. You may be asked to delete whole chapters, delete characters and their side stories, add a subplot, remove two subplots, eliminate the word just, change the phrase “in order to” to the phrase “to”… The word count number on the proposal is–as said earlier–already an approximation.
  • Depending on the publisher, you may be asked to increase or decrease your word count by another 5,000 words to fit that house’s standards. (And that doesn’t mean that you have to find a subplot, scene, or two additional chapters that will increase the word count by exactly 5,000 new words.)
  • The design team may decide to use a font that makes it important to trim a sentence or two from every chapter so they have no pages with one lonely line and lots of white space for doodling. The word count could change again at that stage.
  • Giving an exact-to-the-decimal-point number usually is a sign of an inexperienced writer.

What does matter is that every word of your word count counts.

(How many words would a word count count if a word count could count counts?)word counts counting

Authors can fill pages with their words. Can they fill minds and hearts? They can key in characters until they’ve reached a magic number that makes a whole book. But is it a collection of words or a story?

As the new year dawns, let’s focus on making sure every word in our rounded-off word count communicates, impacts, motivates, instructs, or comforts.


word counts hope




Rounding off word counts may be old news to you. Do a new writer a favor and share the information. Or invite that writer to follow the Books & Such blog. They’ll be glad you did.

For fun, list one word you habitually use that is unnecessary and if removed would radically change your word count?