Thinking in Words – January 10th, 2018

Why do we bother with currencies? Why do we shackle ourselves to the dollar–or the pound or the yen or the yuan or the bitcoin? If I’m good at painting fences and you’re good at growing apples, what’s the point of me earning a currency for my painting, you earning a currency for your apple sales, and us exchanging some arbitrary token in lieu of me simply painting your fence in exchange for a few apples?

The answer’s obvious, right? A currency acts as a standard, as a way to measure wildly different things in some common way. Without a currency I might think my fence painting is worth a thousand apples while you think one of your apples is worth a thousand fence paintings. Which is just silly. Everyone knows an apple is only worth nine-hundred and ninety-nine fence paintings.

In the world of writing, many people assume the proper currency to use is pages. After all, we talk about many pages a book is, your professor assigns you term papers by page length, and we handle literal pages in nearly every paper-based task we perform.

This is a mistake. Pages are not writing’s true currency–words are. Sure, as a reader you can (probably) eke by on pages alone but if you want to be a writer you’re going to need to ditch the pages and start thinking in words.

Length Matters

Go take a look at your bookshelf (you do have a bookshelf, right?). Pull out a book at random and tell me how many pages it is. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Great. Now, tell me how many words it is. Let me guess–you have no clue. That’s okay. As readers and consumers, we are trained to think about the length of books in terms of pages. Not only is this convention easier, but it also takes into account everything else that goes into designing a book such as its layout, typography, and so on.

The problem is that once you start writing your own stories, you have no sane way to measure how short or long they are compared to the books you know and love. Is the first book of ASOIAF (Game of Thrones) 10,000 words? 100,000? 1,000,000? For that matter, how long is a novel considered to be? A novella? A short story?

No one teaches us to think like this, which means we’re just going to have to teach ourselves. The standards vary wildly across who you’re talking to, but if we listen to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and their word lengths per each category of their Nebula awards then:

A novel is 40,000 words or more.
A novella is 17,500 to 39,999 words.
A novelette is 7,500 to 17,499 words.
A short story is under 7,500 words.

Let’s jump back to Game of Thrones. Its length is 298,000 words. Holy crap. That’s 7 times the minimum that SFWA says novels must be, so that must make it insanely long right? For comparison, the paperback comes in at a breezy 819 pages. So yes, even by our old currency this is one long book. But if we do a little math here and divide 819 by 7, all of a sudden we have the SFWA telling us that books as short as 117 pages count as a novel.

What the hell? I don’t know about you, but I would never count 117 pages as being novel length. Clearly the Nebula awards make for a bit of a wonky (and old) convention so what should we be using?

Let’s go back to our scorned friend the page and ask ourselves: How many words are in an average page? A widely accepted standard for words per page is the range of 250-350, with older sources skewing towards 250 per page. Obviously this number will fluctuate depending on the amount of white space on the page, with dialogue-heavy pages being thinner while dense blocks of description will clock in higher.

For reference, my contemporary fantasy novel Undercity is 90,000 words and comes in at just over 300 pages, making for 300 words per page. Game of Thrones goes denser, coming in at 360 words per page, whereas Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (sorry Brits) Stone’s 77,000 words span 322 pages, leaving merely 240 words on each page.

Which all makes sense, doesn’t it? HP is a far lighter read than ASOIAF and the books are intended for very different audiences. In fact, you’ll find word counts vary wildly depending not just on audience but also on genre, publisher, and the author’s fame. To be more blunt about it for you authors looking to publish your debut novel, Writer’s Digest thinks you should go lighter than heavier; trying to get a debut novel of more than 100,000 words off the ground is a Herculean feat (and for good reason, though we won’t go into that here).

Let’s look at some other famous novels and their word counts:

The Fellowship of the Ring – 188,000
Pride and Prejudice – 123,000
Ulysses – 265,000
Les Miserables – 531,000
Animal Farm – 30,000

I think we can all agree the lesson here is to skip reading Les Mis and just go see the musical instead.

But I Want to Read Les Miserables

Okay, I take back what I said–if you want to read Les Mis, by all means please go ahead. But exactly how long will that take you?

We could go down quite the rabbit hole talking about reading speeds (and in case you were curious, Alice in Wonderland is 26,000 words), but the fact to know is that average readers can be expected to read 300 words per minute (wpm). This number varys quite a bit–speed readers reach 1500 wpm, college students chug along at 450 wpm and third-graders only read 150 wpm–but for the purpose of this post let’s take 300 wpm to be our standard (or roughly 1 page a minute).

That means Les Miserables with its 531,000 words would take you 30 hours to read. Game of Thrones? Well that’s 17 hours. The first Harry Potter book? 4 hours.

Alice in Wonderland, however, is an easy, peasy 90 minutes. That’s even shorter than the musical-version of Les Mis!

When measuring your own work, remember these easy rules:

Every 1000 words you write will take your (average) reader a little more than 3 minutes to read.
Every 10,000 will take 33 minutes.
Every 100,000 will take 5 and half hours.

Just something to keep in mind before you start working on your unofficial Les Miserables sequel, Les Miserables 2: Electric Jean Valjeanaroo.

A Writer Writes

Well look at you. You know that an average page is 250-350 words, that average readers read 300 words per minute, and that you could watch the first season of Game of Thrones in almost the same time as it would take you to read the first book.

But what about writing these goddamn words? How long does that take?

Let’s start with the record for the fastest typing on an alphanumeric keyboard, which was 216 words in one minute and was achieved by Stella Pajunas in 1946 (!). This rate is not sustainable for much longer than that, but if it were then Stella would have been typing 13,000 words an hour–which means you and me are going to be writing far less than that.

Studies and typing test results put the average typing speed for us average joes at 40 wpm, which is 2400 words per hour. To put it in terms of the books we used before, it would mean:

Game of Thrones takes 124 hours to type.
Harry Potter takes 32 hours.
Les Miserables takes 221 hours.
And Alice in Wonderland takes 11 hours.

Think about that for a moment. We could reasonably read Alice in Wonderland in 90 minutes, but typing that manuscript takes 7 times that. So the next time you go to put a book down because it’s taking too long to finish, just think about how long it took the author to write!

But, as any writer worth their salt knows, there is much more involved in writing than typing and to figure out how much you can write in an hour you’re going to have to do something kind of icky: you’re going to have to time yourself.

I recommend trying this a couple times over, with different increments of time (an hour, 30 minutes, 20 minutes) to see roughly where you fall. Personally, I veer much closer to 1000-2000 words an hour, depending on how clear an idea I have of what I want to write. Which means a book like Game of Thrones is more likely to take me 150-300 hours to write, not including the mountains of brainstorming, rewriting, and editing that undoubtedly went into it.

Sigh.

But as a panacea for that bad news, let me share some target daily word counts of famous authors with you to affirm a simple truth we writers often forget: it just takes a little bit every day to get somewhere.

Anne Rice knows as much with her 3000 words a day target. As does Barbara Kingsolver, who tried for 1000 words a day. And while we might envy Michael Crichton and his astonishing 10,000 words a day, Mark Twain only aimed for 1400 words daily and his infamy is going nowhere.

So don’t dismay. You simply have to keep going, day after day, until you’ve exorcised that first draft. Then the real work begins.