Addendum: Counting Words

When I wrote about the state of my writing, and my as-yet-unrealized goal to be able to write a post of 1500-2000 words regularly, I used “word count” repeatedly. The problem is, I never defined what I meant by counting words. So what exactly is a word, how are they counted, and how do the rules of word counting affect the length of my posts here?

Anyone old enough to have gone to school before computers and word processors might remember that writing an essay to a certain word length came with a caveat: Some words don’t count. Other words counted, but differently from how they are counted now by software.

To count, or not to count

When a grade school teacher in the 1970s asked for a 300-word essay, they almost certainly mentioned a list of words that did not count towards the total: articles, conjunctions, and many prepositions. I recall at the time thinking that this was just the teacher being annoying. Think about it for a moment. How many words in Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1 of the eponymous play?

To be, or not to be — that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1 .

In the first line alone, about half the words “don’t count”, according to old-fashioned rules. Most software that counts words will give about 39 or 40. Some will treat “’tis” as a word, some will not. A traditional school essay word count will exclude the words “to”, “the”, “or”, and “and”, which together are 11 of the total. Maybe Shakespeare really only wrote 20 words. He did manage to maintain iambic pentameter, though.

I haven’t seen anyone really harp on excluded words much any more. Partly it’s because in a 300-word grade school essay, it’s easy to inflate the total, while in a professional setting, at 2000+ words, the exact count doesn’t matter. You’re far more likely to hear about writing being too wordy than too short. Mostly the tools just count everything, using the computer’s rules for word boundaries. Note that the language matters: word boundaries in Chinese for example, are radically different than in English or other Germanic and Romance languages.

The question of “how many words” starts to matter less, except in a relative sense. A novel is longer than a novella, which is longer than a short story. In academia, output is often counted by page, because the required formats (10-12 point size, double-spaced, margins of such-and-such size) make it reasonable to compare pages, and there’s more often than not an upper limit rather than a lower one. Also, academic and professional work often includes navigation adds like title pages, tables of contents, and footers, as well as figures and tables. All things that aren’t easily quantified by word count.

Buddha in the Sky

But I digress.

All that matters

Recall that what I said really matters is that interested people be able to find my work and stick around to read it. The former is a matter of algorithmic quality, and the word counts don’t mess around with excluding anything. The latter is a function of attention and interest, meaning “how much time will a person be willing to spend reading this?”. In calculating time to read, the average reader’s words per minute is already a very rough approximation, which varies greatly depending on the quality and grade level of the writing.

Time!… is marching on

Rather than fret too much about exact word count, I just pick a tool that counts words consistently, and that lets me know if something is longer or shorter, nearer to or farther from my intended length in comparison with other things I’ve written.

Everything so far is just to say: I’m not a school kid trying to do the least work possible to get 300 words on paper; I’m not writing for a print newspaper where I have to hit a certain goal of column inches; I’m not interested in artificially padding my writing nor do I have reason to sharply limit how many words I write to fit limited space. I’m writing towards a certain sweet spot: long enough to say something but short enough that you, the reader, don’t lose interest.

Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.

Dhammapada, Chapter 8

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