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Solving the Word-Count Mystery

The best way to gauge document length

What I call the word count mystery mystifies me (as good mysteries should), and it arises fairly often in my conversations with clients.

Remember back in English class, when Teacher assigned a book report or a what-I-did-last-summer essay? Someone (usually a boy in the back row) would reactively throw his hand toward the ceiling and ask, “How long does it have to be?”

Teacher would say, “Four pages” or “Three pages” or “No more than five pages.”

Can we get beyond this?

I think we will, but it may take time. My contacts in middle school tell me Teacher now quotes word counts for reports and essays. And why not? The word count of every Word document and other word processing applications is clearly displayed in the on-screen status bar.

Yet many of my clients still talk about length in pages.

Here’s the problem: Many documents of five pages take longer to read than many with twice that number of pages. Those five-pagers might mash 700 words onto each page, while the ten-pagers might have maybe 250. The word count for the text-heavy five-pager would be 3,500, and for the ten-pager, with its liberal use of white space and graphic design, 2,500.

The issue of how long a piece should be is another matter, which I will cover in another post. For now, let’s stick with the two key issues around word count: the reader’s time commitment, and the writer’s fee.

Time to read

When you publish, you are asking readers for their time. I believe many thought leaders now worry too much about this. After all, readers can stop reading whenever they decide to and the length of the piece doesn’t change the basic deal between readers and authors: Readers give authors their time, and authors give readers information or entertainment. We’ve all read books that we didn’t want to end, and we have all stopped reading others.

Of course, it’s worth gauging the time you’re asking readers to commit. The average adult reads about 200 words a minute. So a 2,000 word piece should take about ten minutes of reading (not skimming).

You also affect reading speed by the way you write. Short words, sentences, and paragraphs speed readers along. The opposites slow them down.

It’s worth considering word count because your readers instinctively do the same when they come across an article. Here’s the point for our purposes here: When you’re considering length, word count is more important than page count, which is mainly a function of layout.

The Pricing’s Right

An article in the Winter 2017 Bulletin of the Authors Guild (of which I am a member) advises writers to have both hourly and word-count rates when they quote fees. As a business person, only word-count rates make sense to me. (I am open to opposing views.)

Here’s why. My hourly rate is meaningless to my clients unless they can track my time, and they can’t. (Hell, I can’t even track my time!) A writer on a project may be “writing” when she’s staring out the window or driving to the dentist. She’s “writing” when she’s on the phone with the client talking about the piece, when she’s pouring over source materials, when she’s interpreting editorial comments.

Not only is tracking all that time, ah, challenging (in current parlance); it’s almost meaningless when associated with hourly rates.

The real issue is this: If I am slow to grasp the client’s points or struggle to get the words right, why should I penalize the client by charging for those “extra” hours? By the same token, if my experience and skills enable me to nail a piece in several hours on the first draft, why should I be penalized?

So, I charge a per-word rate based on projected word count. That defines the length of the document and an agreed-upon budgeted fee. Neither is written in stone, but both are reliable guides to the project’s scope and cost.

What, you might ask, stops my client from saying he wants a 2,000-word piece, having me quote my fee, and then, through scope creep, adding team members, or expanding revisions, getting a 3,000-word piece? And what keeps me from padding a piece to reach a certain word count?

These are not problems among publishing professionals. Experienced editors and others who regularly purchase writing services understand how projects are scoped and priced. They don’t misrepresent the length of a piece, and if client-generated revisions exceed expectations, they agree to an adjustment in the fee.

So in practice the client, often in consultation with the writer, develops an idea for a piece. If it’s a regular feature, such as quarterly bulletin or the like, the word count is more or less known. If not, the client has a good idea of the desired length, if only by comparing it with similar previously published pieces.

Whatever the desired length, it can and should be expressed as a word count.

Count on this

If it seems I’ve belabored this issue, you may have already been using word count to gauge the length of pieces and regularly using the word count displayed in the status bar as a guide.

So, another of the many blessings of technology is always knowing how long a document is, regardless of how many pages you want it to cover. But it’s still up to us as communicators to know, for the reader’s sake, how long it should be.

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