Nixing page count, adopting word count

June 2, 2009

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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