How many words to a page?

Mar 16, 2018

Tell a writer or a self-publisher that your work is, or will be, ‘about two hundred pages’ and you’ll get a polite but exasperated response.

Writers and publishers think in thousands of words, not pages. This is because pages can be the size of a large broadsheet or as small as the tiniest notebook. Margins, typefaces, white space, pages devoted to ‘front matter’, indices and appendices are all variable. And then there are pictures…

We have to think in thousands of words. In my case, this isn’t because I charge by the word – I’d rather stick pins in my toes –  but because I want to know roughly how long it will take me to write a publishable book once the research or interview phase is complete. Time is the criterion, not quantity.

How to work out the length of your book 

The obvious way is to write it using Word or Pages, which supply millions of us with instant information about the number of words in our document. For years, I assumed that ‘millions of us’ included ‘people who’ve asked me to review or edit their first novel’. I was wrong. If you have produced a 1000-page saga on your laptop or even your phone but have not yet discovered the Word Count function, go to the Help menu at the top of the screen and put ‘word count’ into the search box. It’ll show you how to find it.

If, on the other hand, you would like me to write for you, and I ask how big a book you’re thinking about, you may answer in number of pages or thickness of book. Since for the reasons I’ve outlined this means little, here’s what to do. Your mental model of what you want is probably very like a book you already own, so use that book as your guide to how many thousand words you want. It has no illustrations, index, appendix or preface, which makes life simpler. Here’s what to do.

Pick a typical page. Choose a block of text and count all the words in the first four lines. Divide by four. The result is the average number of words in each line. Let’s say it’s twelve. Count the lines on your typical page. We’ll say it’s thirty. 12 x 30 = 360.

So you may average 360 words to a page.

Now count the pages. Don’t bother with the ‘front matter’ – the pages containing the title and so on. Start at Chapter One; let’s say that’s on page 9. The book ends at page 190. OK, so that’s 181 pages of type, not all complete pages but – this is an estimate. Multiply the number of pages by the number of words on each page.

360 x 181 = 65,180.

Ta-rraaa! You have “about 65,000 words.”

WARNING! Every 190-page book doesn’t have 65,000 words. See the first few paragraphs of this article – you’ll find 190 tall narrow pages with illustrations and only 30,000 words, or 190 short squat pages with big print, big margins and 15,000.  Always do the calculation.

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