Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Do Writers Really Need to Learn Math?

I passed Grade 11 Math only by promising to never, ever, take math again. At the time, I thought it was a trick question!

After seeing two of my kids struggle with learning disabilities, I now think I have dyscalculia. Regardless, I do an awful lot of basic arithmetic for my writing, and I think you might benefit from doing some too. Why? The main reason is that words are countable, of course. This turns them into objects that can be measured, like jelly beans or apples or pennies. And the act of measuring helps give you, the writer, more control.

Just as I will never hike a mountain unless I know the elevation gain, I will never write an article unless I know the word count I'm aiming at. Having a firm measurement makes writing easier because when I attack a job, I immediately understand — almost intuitively — whether my topic is going to be too big or too small. This understanding will come to you, too, with practice.

If my topic is too big I simply focus on a smaller part of it. Or, I might turn it into a two-part series. If my topic is too small, I'll likely do several mindmaps to try to flesh out a more productive angle. In short, I'm the Goldilocks of the writing world. I want my topic to be just the right size!

Bottom line? You should never agree to write anything unless you have a word count. If your boss won't give you one, then give it to yourself. (It doesn't even matter if the count is arbitrary. Mainly, you need to have a goal.)

If you're working on a big project, such as a very long report, or a book, doing the math becomes even more urgent. First, it helps to know that the typical word count for a book is 80,000 words. (Obviously, though, there are huge variations here. Think of the difference between Gone With the Wind and A Christmas Carol.) If you want to be more precise, find a book that's a length you like and count the number of words on ONE page. Multiply that by the total number of pages in the book and you'll have a much more specific word count goal.

Then, figure out how much time you're prepared to devote to writing your book per day. I strongly suggest you suppress your ambition and depend on no more than 30 minutes each day, five days a week. Next, you need to calculate how many words you can push out in this time. If you figure you can produce 325 words per day — the length of a typical email — that means you can finish a rough draft of a book in a year. (I'm assuming you'll take off at least two weeks for holidays. 50 weeks x five days = 250 days. 250 days x 325 words = 81,250 words. Voila, your book!)

I like approaching big scary goals, like writing a book, using simple arithmetic. The  calculations make it perfectly clear that just about anyone can write a book without devoting their entire life to the project or becoming a hermit.

Did you know you are capable of writing a book?!!   

Finally, there's one more way in which I like to use numbers and that is to measure readability. Others may not take the trouble to count your words but if many of your sentences are super long (say longer than 40 words), readers will likely find your writing hard and confusing and they'll stop.

The best way to do this kind of math is by giving the job to your computer. If you're using MS Word, just enable the readability statistics (check your Help menu for instructions) or go to my favorite readability website and paste your text into the box. You should aim for an average sentence length of 14-18 words. But note I'm saying  AVERAGE. This means that some of your sentences can — and should — be much longer while others should be much shorter.

Even I can manage this sort of grade 3 math and I think you can too. After all, you don't want to be like one of these Miss USA contestants when asked whether math should be taught in schools, do you? (Full disclosure: these are actors, putting on a show.) 

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 13th 2011, 7:43 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
"Having a firm measurement makes writing easier because when I attack a job, I immediately understand — almost intuitively — whether my topic is going to be too big or too small. This understanding will come to you, too, with practice."

This understanding did come to me, and it made all the difference.

Great, practical advice!
Tuesday December 13th 2011, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I think that one of the reasons that National Novel Writing Month is so successful -- that is, as a participatory activity, if not necessarily as a fount of novelistic quality -- is that it's all about the numbers. The one and only criterion of success is word count: 50,000. Many people have noted that it's their daily word-count quota of 1667 words that keeps them writing, and it's the "keeps them writing" part that is ultimately of value to the individual participant, since most everyone needs an incentive to help them practice, practice, practice.

I must say that I have often found that an initial word count goal can seem daunting (whether for a blog post or a book), but that in the end I generally overshoot by a mile and have to start chopping. (In itself a useful exercise.) But as you say, without that initial target, you just don't know where you're going.
Tuesday December 13th 2011, 11:58 AM
Comment by: mare4short (Fresno, CA)
"I GA-get it!" THE NEXT COUNT, FOR ME, finds "The next count for me, adds up to 10 (aphorism), 200 paragraph), 2000 something printable (+ or minus 500), etc.... I can't think to 56,000 - yet! . . . Again! 1979: "SEXUAL HARASSMENT:how to recognize and deal with it," Mary M.Fuller, PhD, printed 20,000 copies; sold about 15,000 -- gave away 5,000.
Then ---. A young man,a Personnel Officer, wrote some some bad, bad, bad, words about me and I had a "nervous breakdown" which I translate to "got disappointed" so could by-pass my money going to 'male psychologists' -- several times over many years!
NOW - from an old (becoming 90)lady, w/dysgraphyia, can read Visual Thesauris, for hours and hours! Hope my story inspires you to DO what they SAY. Smart writers -- Commenters, too!
Tuesday December 13th 2011, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Aloha Eddy (Newport Beach, CA)
Daphne - You're everywhere, and this article is perfect for someone like me. My wife calls me, "Chatty Kathy." I sent you a tweet on Twitter a few days ago introducing myself, and telling you about the book I am writing. You replied to @alohaeddy, and wished me well. My Editor/Mentor, Sarah Williams introduced me to Visual Thesaurus when I began to write my book. It's a part of my life now.
Thank you for being out there, and doing what you do.
Tuesday December 13th 2011, 2:28 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Yes, it's always good to have goals, but the time you need to actually write the target word count also depends on the amount of research the topic requires.

Incidentally, 325 words as the length of a typical email strikes me as very long. Most of my mails are short to very short, unless I have to consult on something.
Tuesday January 10th 2012, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sorry not to have replied sooner. I was caught up in the craziness of Christmas and didn't know this article had been posted! Aloha again, Eddy!

Alice, the time you need to WRITE the target word count should NOT depend on the amount of research because you should always do (and calculate) research separately. The overall time to produce the article will be greater if it requires lots of research but the WRITING time should be no different. Does that make sense to you?

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