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On Word Count: e-Reading Ivanhoe

A few weeks ago Trish took the kids to Wichita to visit her family. That gave me a weekend all to myself, so I scheduled every moment of my three days of alone time and filled two pages of my scribblebook with a big ol’ run-on To Do list.

That list was a thing of grace and beauty…so, naturally, I shared it on Facebook. When my friend Jennifer looked it over, the task that struck her enough to elicit a comment was “Finish Ivanhoe.” She thought that seemed a little frivolous compared with all the other heavy work I had to do.

And, y’know, it was. That was the whole reason I’d added it. At the beginning of the weekend I was mostly done with the book — somewhere around chapter 35 out of 44 — and I thought it would be good to add a little bit of recreation into my busy work schedule. It would also help my self-esteem to have at least one item I could cross off the list without working too hard.

That’s…not how it turned out. Finishing off Ivanhoe devoured huge chunks of my weekend, and I could never understand why it was taking so long to get through those last ten chapters.

I didn’t find out until Monday afternoon. See…I’d been reading it as an e-Book on my cell phone, so I didn’t have the constant visual feedback that a paper book would have given me as to how much material was still left.

Instead, I was guessing based off two things: the memory that I read this story when I was eight (so how long could it possibly be?), and the number of chapters in the Table of Contents. Apparently Scott was a little reckless with his chapter sizes, though, and the ones at the beginning were considerably shorter than the ones at the end.

Oh, and also apparently I was a magnificent reader at age eight. Because Monday I finally finished the book over my lunch break, and then out of maddening curiosity, I pulled up the plain text version of it on Project Gutenberg, pasted it into Google Docs, and asked for a word count.

Google had to think about it for a while, but eventually I got my answer:

175,752 words

And that’s just the chapter text, not counting the volumes of front matter and back matter.

That’s three times the length of most of my novels. That’s even longer than the longest I’ve ever written (which was, itself, way too long). That’s an undertaking.

Why Writers Care about Word Count

And that would have been handy information to have at the beginning of my weekend!

Actually, word count is almost always really handy information. It’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to in a future dominated by e-Books — we’ll have easy and immediate access to numbers like that (as long as we remember to check, anyway).

Anyway, this week I’m going to talk about why everyone cares so much about word count, and what exactly are the magic numbers when it comes to word count.

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