Questions, I get questions

Hi, readers —

I love when this happens — within the past week, I have received several great pieces of feedback through the COMMENTS function. And, as often happens, the comments were grouped around a single issue: this time, it was formatting. So for the next few posts, I shall be revisiting that all-important issue.

(For those of you who have had questions and comments, but have been too shy to post them for all the world to see, the site is soon to be revamped, and I believe that it will become possible for questions to be sent incognito, rather than displayed within the blog. I’ll keep you posted.) .

Dave, a delightfully articulate and observant reader, wrote to ask:

“I do have a couple of questions concerning Standard Format. First of all, is New Courier an acceptable font, especially if one does not have Courier? Secondly, is there an argument for non-proportional fonts (Courier/New Courier) as opposed to proportional fonts (Times Roman/Times New Roman)? It appears to me that with New Courier I get the approximate 250 WPP, but with Times New Roman (set at 12), I get over 300 WWP. Could you clarify sometime, or indicate what “font size” setting to use when selecting Times New Roman?”

Dave, these are great questions, and for my sake, the blog’s sake, and the sake of everyone reading this, I’m glad you asked them. Because, you see, you made me realize something: I have been writing professionally for so long now that there are questions that I no longer remember having had myself — but which actually took me time and effort to find out back in the day. Since a HUGE part of my goal here is to try to save my readers time in what can be a very long road to professionalism — needlessly long, in many cases, because what is standard in the industry both changes every decade or so and is generally counterintuitive AND because professionals seldom take the time to explain the ropes to those new to the biz — it is immensely important that my readers let me know when I haven’t explained perplexing industry logic in enough detail .

To address the first questions first: yes, you may use New Courier as a substitute for Courier; the New part indicates a variation on the font, not an entirely different breed (thus Times New Roman). If you’re writing for the movie or television industries, you basically do not have a choice: the vast majority of script agents will simply reject a submission presented in ANY other font than 12-point Courier without reading it at all.

You have a bit more leeway with the publishing industry, but still, the Times Roman and Courier families will serve you better, always in 12 point. To professional eyes — i.e., precisely the eyes you want to impress with your work in order to get signed by an agent and/or published — these typefaces are standard. And, given a choice, they tend to prefer Times or Times New Roman over Courier — but since the entertainment industry specifies the other, they will accept both.

It is, in short, a matter of tradition in both industries, a throwback to a time before computers, when writers had only two major typeface choices: Pica (10-pt) or Elite (12-pt). Courier is closer to the former, Times to the latter. Call it a sentimental atavism, a longing to cling to a glorious past, but folks who read scripts and manuscripts like ’em to look as though they were written in 1945 on a manual Olivetti. Go figure.

So the distinction is really less about non-proportional vs. proportional fonts than ingrained habit — and standards of estimation. In Courier, a page of script is universally correlated to a minute of film; in Times, a page of writing is considered 250 words in spirit, if not in actual fact. By using the same units of measurement as the big boys, you are translating your work into a language spoken by the people who make decisions in these industries.

The underlying question here, though, as Dave correctly identified, is about the empirical difference between actual and estimated word counts. Why, a reasonable person is certainly entitled to wonder, if the industry standard is 250 words/page in Times or Times New Roman, doesn’t the word count actually work out that way? And why ISN’T that a great big problem for everyone concerned?

It would be — if what agents and editors were interested in were ACTUAL word count when they ask authors for a word count, but they’re not. Allow me to explain.

Agents and editors uniformly demand that authors tell them how long books are, as expressed in word counts. The standard manuscript title page (and yes, Virginia, there IS a single standard, speaking of professional criteria that are seldom explained to those new to the game; I shall revisit that issue soon) INVARIABLY lists a word count. And if you ever intend to write an article for any publication that isn’t run by academics, you will be expected to predict the article’s word count when you pitch the article to an editor. There is a reason for this: the publisher needs to budget production materials (paper, covers, ink, shipping, etc.) and the magazine needs to budget space. Essentially, what they are asking the author to do is to tell them in advance how much space the writing is going to take up.

Let me let you in on a little secret, though: professionals report a book’s word count and an article’s word count quite differently. A book’s word count is, as a rule, estimated, not actual, whereas an article’s is usually literally the number of words in the piece. Historically, there is a reason for the difference: publishers pay book authors a percentage of the cover price of a book, after publication (the much-vaunted advance is in fact an estimate of what that the author’s share of future sales will be) whereas magazines pay article writers in advance (or at any rate, upon publication) by the word. The distinction, then, is accounting-based.

For article-writers, the advent of the computer has been a boon. All you have to do is ask your word processing program to provide you with a word count, and voilà , it is done. A significant saving of time and effort.

If you happen to write books — as many of you probably do, or hope to — availing yourself of this word processing perq is not a particularly good idea. In fact, reporting the literal word count, rather than an estimated one, can actually harm your chances of landing an agent or a publishing contract.

See, that’s the kind of thing I really should remember to mention from time to time.

Before I get into why it’s in your best interests to estimate, I should probably speak a little about why Dave’s actual word count in Times New Roman and the industry estimate did not line up. There’s a pretty good reason: it is pretty much always different. But since absolutely nobody in the book publishing industry is ever going to check that your estimated word count and your actual match up (who has the time?), don’t worry about trying to force them into conformity.

Ready for a real cognitive twist? The word count isn’t about the number of words in a manuscript; it’s about the number of PAGES in it. Again, it’s an accounting-based distinction.

For most fiction writers, this is VERY good news. I have, I blush to say, gotten as many as 380 words per page in TNR, but because I use industry standard estimation rather than actual word count — as book authors do — I get away with cramming in FAR more words into my manuscripts than I would if I used the actual count. And in the industry, this isn’t considered misleading — it’s considered normal. Preferable, even.

Confusing, eh?

This is why I’m really glad that you brought it up, Dave: writers, particularly aspiring novelists, are told all the time to keep their work under certain word counts. For mainstream fiction, we are told at every contest we attend, it should be under 100,000 words; for genre, it should be between 60,000 and 85,000.

And whenever an agent or editor says that from a podium, you can see half the writers in the room sag into little puddles of despair. A very visible thought bubble, of the kind favored by cartoonists, rises about the crowd: “100,000 words?” you can hear everyone thinking. “Chicken feed. What, does everyone in the publishing industry hate words?”

No, they don’t hate words — but the way that writers talk about word counts and agents/editors do often resorts in miscommunication, because they have different units of measurement in mind. To a writer, the word count has to do with the number of words in a manuscript; to an agent or editor, it refers to the number of PAGES in a manuscript — because, you see, everyone in the industry simply assumes that a double-spaced page of text in Times or Times New Roman is 250 words. No one in the industry actually counts to see if that is true.

Again, who has the time?

So when an agent or editor casually remarks that a first novel should be under 100,000 words, he actually means that he expects it to be under 400 pages. (Much less intimidating put that way, isn’t it?) Genre novels, then, should be somewhere between 250 and 350 pages (the actual math would dictate 240 and 340, but everyone prefers the rounder-sounding numbers of 60,000 and 85,000, for reasons I shall get into below).

So when aspiring writers, thinking that they are being oh-so-honest, put ACTUAL word counts on their submissions, they run the risk of an agent or editor’s thinking that the book is CONSIDERABLY longer than it is. Think about it: 120,000 words in actual count could fall on on 382 real pages, but estimated at 250/page would mean 480 pages of industry-standard estimated text. A HUGE difference.

Did a choir of angels suddenly start to sing in the heads of those of you who have been asked to send the first 50 pp. of a novel to an agent, only to be told that the agency can’t sell long works anymore? If so, thank Dave — because, I blush to admit, this is such a truism amongst published writers that it might not have occurred to me to write about it here at all, had he not asked about it.

Honestly, I sometimes think that writers’ conferences should be subtitled, so the writers will know what the agents and editors are talking about.

So unless you are trying to make your book appear longer than it is, always, ALWAYS use industry standard estimation — but to do so, you will need to use the industry-standard fonts.

Once you make the conversion, this will save you a TREMENDOUS amount of time — no more performing a word count on each chapter, adding them all up, and cringing at the ultimate total. Simply place your manuscript in standard format in 12-point Times or Times New Roman, see how many pages it is, and multiply by 250 (if you are using Courier, multiply by 200). And that, my friends, will be your official word count.

One final observation: the more math-oriented among you will have been struck already by the fact that using this system, a professional word count will NEVER be an odd number, like 76,431. Which means, in turn, that if you have been listing actual word counts without rounding, the title page of your manuscript would have automatically told pretty much anyone in the publishing industry that you had never sold a book before. Which means that the manuscript would have been taken less seriously — REGARDLESS OF THE QUALITY OF THE WRITING.


See why I get so miffed about folks in the publishing industry being slow to share the standards by which they judge submissions? This one is so ingrained in professional psyches that I would literally never even consider formatting my work any other way — or presenting any other kind of word count. So much so that I needed reminding that anyone ever does it any other way.

So thanks, Dave! Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *