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Editor Assistance

October 3 2013 Editor Assistance Newsletter

Greetings and Salutations -

It's important for every web writer to understand how word count works on the web, and how it differs from old-style print counts.

You would think that word count would count words. For example, if the sentence read:

A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

That would seem to have nine words in it. And, indeed, this is how a few programs count their words. They do it by actual physical blocks of letters with a space on either side.

But this is not even a print standard, never mind a web standard. :)

Back in the days of print-only, word count was not about making wordy articles. It was about figuring out if an article could fit into a space on a page. The newspaper editor wanted to make sure the article on the new restaurant in town could fit into the space available for it. An article with lots of long words would take up more space than an article with lots of short words, like this:

I ran to the gym.

Constantine perambulated within the supermarket.

You can see how both have five words, but their length is vastly different. So words couldn't be actual physical words. Instead, a rule was to take the full character count and to divide it by five. So in the sentence "I ran to the gym" there are twelve physical characters. "Irantothegym". Divide that by five and you get 2.4. That would be the word count of that sentence.

So this is how Word and some other packages give word count.

However, this is not accurate either. The length of that sentence isn't twelve. It has spaces in it - and spaces take up space. Depending on the size of the words, there could be quite a lot of spaces. I.e. you could have two blocks of text, each with fourteen characters. But one has zero spaces, because those ten characters are one solid word. The other could have a number of spaces:


I am I be I is I do

So, on the web, spaces can't be ignored. They need to be counted in order to determine the full length of a piece. And, more than that, the paragraph breaks need to be counted, because they push a piece's length even more substantially than letters or spaces do.

So, to summarize, for web writing one should never use a "physical" word count, where each actual word is counted. One shouldn't even use the default "no spaces" Word option of Word count, because on the web spaces are important to be aware of. The starting point should be the characters-with-spaces count in Word, if you are using Word for a guideline. But you should be aware that even this number is low, because it's not counting paragraph breaks.

The BellaOnline word count shown by each article is the correct, web based word count, and it is what should be taken as the final figure for each article.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Lisa Shea, owner


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