The word count is the number of words in a document or passage of text. Word counting may be needed when a text is required to stay within certain numbers of words. This may particularly be the case in academia, legal proceedings, journalism and advertising. Word count is commonly used by translators to determine the price for the translation job. Word counts may also be used to calculate measures of readability and to measure typing and reading speeds (usually in words per minute). When converting character counts to words, a measure of 5 or 6 characters to a word is generally used.
Details and variations in how the count is defined
Variations in the operational definitions of how to count the words can occur (namely, what "counts as" a word, and which words "don't count" toward the total). However, especially since the advent of widespread word processing, there is a broad consensus on these operational definitions (and hence the bottom-line integer result). The consensus is to accept the text segmentation rules generally found in most word processing software (including how word boundaries are determined, which depends on how word dividers are defined). The first trait of that definition is that a space (any of various whitespace characters, such as a "regular" word space, an em space, or a tab character) is a word divider. Usually a hyphen or a slash is, too. Different word counting programs may give varying results, depending on the text segmentation rule details, and on whether words outside the main text (such as footnotes, endnotes, or hidden text) are counted. But the behavior of most major word processing applications is broadly similar.
However, several generations of people who grew up during the era when school assignments were done in handwriting or with typewriters remember "rules" for these definitions that differed from today's consensus. Most importantly, many students were drilled on the rule that "certain words don't count", usually "a", "an", and "the", but sometimes also others, such as "to", "and", and "or". Hyphenated permanent compounds such as "follow-up" (noun) or "long-term" (adjective) were counted as one word. To save the time and effort of counting word-by-word, often a rule of thumb for the average number of words per line was used, such as 10 words per line. These "rules" have fallen by the wayside in the word processing era; the "word count" feature of such software (which follows the text segmentation rules mentioned earlier) is now the standard arbiter, because it is largely consistent (across documents and applications) and because it is fast, effortless, and costless (already included with the application).
As for which sections of a document "count" toward the total (such as footnotes, endnotes, abstracts, reference lists and bibliographies, tables, figure captions, hidden text), the person in charge (teacher, client) can define their choice, and users (students, workers) can simply select (or exclude) the elements accordingly, and watch the word count automatically update.
Novelist Jane Smiley suggests that length is an important quality of the novel. However, novels can vary tremendously in length; Smiley lists novels as typically being between 100,000 and 175,000 words, while National Novel Writing Month requires its novels to be at least 50,000 words. There are no firm rules: for example the boundary between a novella and a novel is arbitrary and a literary work may be difficult to categorise. But while the length of a novel is to a large extent up to its writer, lengths may also vary by sub-genre; many chapter books for children start at a length of about 16,000 words, and a typical mystery novel might be in the 60,000 to 80,000 word range while a thriller could be over 100,000 words.
|Novel||over 40,000 words|
|Novella||17,500 to 40,000 words|
|Novelette||7,500 to 17,500 words|
|Short story||under 7,500 words|
The acceptable length of an academic thesis varies greatly, dependent predominantly on the subject. Many universities limit Ph.D. theses to at most 100,000 words, barring special permission for exceeding this limit.
- DeRocher, James E.; Miron, Murray S.; Patten, Sam M.; Pratt, Charles C. (1973), The Counting of Words: A Review of the History, Techniques and Theory of Word Counts with Annotated Bibliography, Syracuse University Research Corporation, p. 302, ED098814.
- Rothman, Chuck (2005), Word Counts: What Is a Word?, Science Fiction Writers of America. An article on various word count methods in fiction publishing.
- Michaels, Melisa (2005), Focusing on the Wrong Things, Science Fiction Writers of America[dead link] An article on the relative importance of various word count methods in fiction publishing.
- The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America suggest 6 chars to a word
- See. e.g. the corresponding extensions for Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome.
- E.g., Tavory, Ran. "Word Count Bookmarklet". Marklets.com. Retrieved March 3, 2013.
- An example of a dynamic word count script that provides an extensive report about word count statistics.
- Smiley, Jane. 2005. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 14.
- Smiley, 2005, p. 15.
- Edge, Tom, "Does Size Matter?" The Guardian (UK), Booksblog, Nov. 2, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2006/nov/02/doessizematter
- Quindlen, Anna (September 23, 2002), "Writers on Writing: The Eye of the Reporter, the Heart of the Novelist", New York Times, "A novelist doesn't write to space, of course; 80,000 words, 100,000, it is up to the writer to say when the story is done.".
- Lamb, Nancy, Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, p. 24
- Thurston, Carol (August 3, 1997), "Agents give writers the book on what's hot and what's not", Austin American-Statesman, "no one wants more than 60-80,000 words in a mystery, 110,000 for a thriller".
- SFWA Awards FAQ, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as follows:
- Dunleavy, Patrick (2003), Authoring a PhD, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 46, ISBN 978-1-4039-1191-9.