19 January 2010

A computer word count, or a white space count?

Most publishers, paper and ebook, will work from a computer generated word count. If so, no sweat.

However, some paper publishers ask for a white space count, which floors many writers. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, but a little history will put the request into perspective.

A white space count is a throwback to the days when manual typewriters ruled and Courier 12 was the only font available for those crafting a novel. Courier is a mono spaced font, meaning that “i” and “o” take up the same width (as against the Arial font used on this blog which is proportionally spaced). With 25 double-spaced lines to the page and 1 inch margins all round, it was reckoned that each page would roughly occupy the same “space” on a book page. Editors could, by eye, a flick of the wrist and use of a ready reckoner, produce a rough estimate of how many book pages any typescript would occupy.

This was, and still is, particularly of use to editors fulfilling a publishing line with a pre-determined number of book pages, and thus needing typescripts of a particular length. Let's consider a typescript of 90,000 words, computer counted. It will be appreciated that a typescript containing long paragraphs of narrative and little dialogue will take up less book pages than a typescript containing short exchanges of dialogue and little narrative. Sometimes the differences in calculation can be startling.

Modern default fonts, usually New Times Roman or in this blog’s case Arial, are proportionally spaced, meaning that the same sentence takes up less room than when using a mono spaced font. It is highly doubtful, though, that it will be the same proportionally spaced font used in the production of a book. Publishers requesting a white space count often give detailed instructions of how this count should be achieved, but for a fast rule of thumb the following calculation can be used:

  • ensure the script uses a right-ragged margin (not fully justified)
  • that each page carries the same number of lines (turn off widows/orphans)
  • pick from different parts of the typescript 20 full margin-to-margin lines and count the number of words on each
  • add these figures together and divide by 20 to get an average words-per-line figure
  • multiply this figure by the number of lines per page to get an average page count
  • multiply this figure by the number of pages, including partial pages for chapter beginnings/endings, to give an overall white space count for the typescript.
Ebook publishers only work with a computer generated word-count, as the free-flowing nature of reader-enabled font sizing makes the idea of static pages redundant. Didn’t you just know there had to be a perk.

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