Nixing page count, adopting word count

I hate word counts.

The numbers mean nothing to me — How much is 10,000 words, anyway? It’s like describing the cost of dinner in Japanese yen, a currency I don’t understand.

Word count is so useless to this newspaper journalist that when a magazine editor assigns one to my story, I immediately translate it into inches. Column inches may be an absurd way of determining length, but it’s a method I’m familiar with. (Twenty inches, the length of a typical newspaper story, is equal to about 700 words.)

But I’m quickly learning that the length of my travel memoir must be expressed in words, as readers of this blog informed me after I blogged about page count. Once again, since memoir is nonfiction, I erroneously assumed I should use length rules that apply to nonfiction and count pages. But memoir has to read like a novel, and for that reason it follows many fiction guidelines, including the dreaded word count requirement.

So how many words should my travel memoir be?

Plenty of blogs address the topic for fiction, which typically runs 80,000 – 100,000 words, and nonfiction, up to 100,000 words. (I’m generalizing here; some genres run shorter and there’s an exception for every rule.) But the blogosphere seems to have forgotten memoir, a category lost somewhere between fiction and nonfiction.

Tanya Shaffer, author of Somebody’s Heart is Burning, generously wrote to me after I mentioned in my last post that her book came in at 318 pages. That’s nearly 85,000 words, she told me.

So I decided to estimate word count for the other two travel memoirs I referred to in my page count post.  It’s Not About The Tapas, by Polly Evans, comes in at 284 pages. Assuming each published page has between 270 – 350 words, that would give the book a word count window of 77,000 – 99,000. Do the same math for Rita Golden Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad, with 304 pages, and the window becomes 82,000 – 106,000 words.

What does that tell me? My travel memoir should probably fall between 85,000 – 100,000 words, similar to some types of fiction.

All of this is moot for now. I’m figuring it out so I can point myself in the right direction, but at the moment I’m following the advice of memoir author Karen Walker, who added her voice to the slew of comments on my page count post.

“Trying to figure out the word and page count while I’m writing stifles my creativity,” she wrote. “Maybe you can, just for now, tell the story you want to tell. See where you end up – then edit to get [the word count] where it needs to be.”

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8 Responses

  1. I think Karen’s advice is good. Tell the story and see where you wind up. If you’re worrying about having “enough” words you may be tempted to just add “stuff” – lame fluff – to pump up the word count. Conversely, if you stress over the book being too long, you may tend to leave out some things that could have been among the best parts of the story.

    Just write when you write. Editing is a completely different frame of mind and a different skill set.

    The Old Silly from Free Spirit Blog

  2. I agree with Karen. Write your story, then worry about the editing and the word count. Otherwise, you’re going to get too caught up in the figures.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Agree with Karen. Get the story down and whittle away as you need to after you’ve captured it. Thinking about the words will take your mind off the story.

  4. Both my mysteries came out between 80,000 and 85,000 words. I was aware that was a good average length, but that’s not why they came out that way – I was just following the arc of the story where it needed to go. Perhaps that length is so popular because it’s good for the attention span of the writer as well as the reader.

  5. Not to mention the fact that the publisher who wants your book will assign an editor who will then help you polish, and sometimes will suggest you expand a story, or perhaps take out a chapter or two. The others are right. For now, just write. Sounds like you’re doing fine.


  6. I think Karen is absolutely right. The main thing is to write a good book. If a publisher likes it well enough, he/she will be flexible on the final word count.

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  7. Yep, write the book, edit later. Don’t get bogged down in word count or page count.

    You might look into an organization called Story Circle Network. It’s a national organization for women writing their life stories. They might have some resources for you.

    Straight From Hel

  8. […] (I’m guessing this is one of the reasons why word count is better than page count.) […]

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