SFWA’s Nebula Awards ballot had something interesting happen this year. After the final ballot was announced, one of the novelettes was determined to be only 7,070 words long, and was removed from the ballot because novelettes are works that are at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words. I need to emphasize that I am not part of the Nebulas committee and I am not in any way privy to how this error happened, but this is a great opportunity to talk about word count and how it has changed since I’ve been writing.
Yes, something as simple as how many words there are in a story has changed, and radically, over the years.
I took my first professional writing class back in the 1980s (taught by a little-known mystery writer named Mary Kittredge – if you enjoy cozies, the Charlotte Kent mysteries really are a lot of fun) as a hopeful teenager. Back then, there was no such thing as an e-book. The world wide web existed, but, well, not very many people outside of DARPA were using it, and there certainly weren’t professional magazines publishing on it. Most of us writers were still using typewriters.
Well, back in those days, word count meant something very different than the number Microsoft Word spits out at you as the number of words in your document.
You see, the publisher of a print magazine didn’t actually care how many words were in a story. He (usually “he” back then) cared how much space the story took up on the page. So one page of super word-dense prose like, say Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn had just as many words in it, as far as the publisher was concerned, as a completely blank page with the letter “A” printed in the middle of it. Both were 1 page. Occasionally publishers paid by the printed page (and some still do), but payment by the word was more customary. So publishers came up with a standard: One word was 6 characters, including spaces. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was almost seven words, but “I am I” was only one. A publisher knew how many characters they got per line on average (let’s say it was 120) and how many lines they got per page (say 35) and from that they determined how many “words” the author had written (in this case [120/6] x 35 = 700) and would pay the writer based on that.
So that means that if you went through and counted actual words, the count would almost always be less than the official word count.
Well, then Microsoft Word came along. I was a fairly early adopter of word processors, so I learned pretty early on that the actual number of words – defined as a cluster of letters followed by a space – differed from a publisher’s word count. But all publications were still print publications, so what those of us who used word processors did was simply ignore Microsoft Word and count the number of characters we got per line, divide that by six, and multiply that by the number of lines we got per page. So Microsoft Word would be telling me that my story was 5,123 words, but I’d send it out as a 6,000-word story. That was the ’90s.
Today… well, today things are different. Everyone reads electronically. Actual word counts are easily obtainable. So when I decided to have another go at prose writing in 2009, the landscape had changed. I was still calculating word count the old-fashioned way, only to discover that all the publishers I was dealing with, including the print publishers, were now using the Microsoft Word word count. So today, that’s what you should go with. And it’s great, and it’s easy. However, confusion like we had with this year’s Nebulas will likely continue to happen for a while longer yet, because there are enough old-school people like me still hanging around who remember the old way of doing it.
Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that 30 or 40 years ago, quite a few of the Nebula nominees were actually slightly shorter than their category officially allowed, and nobody batted an eye.
It’s always interesting to live in a time of change.