Once, long ago (but in this galaxy) anyone who wanted to submit a manuscript to a New York publisher made certain that said manuscript was printed in Courier. Courier was the industry standard because it was the font of typewriters. Editors knew that a manuscript typed or printed in Courier with one-inch margins was estimated at 250 words per page, or 100,000 words for a 400 page manuscript. Of course, there weren’t actually 250 words on each page, but that’s the way it was figured because publishers were aware of the fact that empty white space takes up paper, too. In other words, it’s irrelevant if all your lines are this short:
Or this long:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, etc.
Because what matters isn’t the actual number of words but how many lines it takes for you to tell your story. In other words, how many pages will be in the final published book?
Fast forward to the age of computers. While they resisted at first, editors eventually started accepting manuscripts typed in Times New Roman (which gives you a lot more words per page), Century School Book, Palatino, whatever. And then people stepped into the abyss and started using computer word counts. Now everyone is confused.
I’ve discussed this issue with editors, agents, and other writers, and while they all say, Yes, they use computer generated word counts, they also generally frown and say, Yes, they are misleading, and No, they really don’t quite know how to judge a book's length anymore, either. A book that comes in at 95,000 words as counted by a word processor can be as much as 125,000 words if figured using the old method. That’s a big difference! Authors who write lots of short sentences (“Holy cow!”) can come up with a much shorter computer-generated word count than verbose, long-winded authors given to writing long paragraphs of text, even though their books will end up the same actual number of pages.
So what do writers do? Most simply switched to Times New Roman and just go with the computer count. But there are still lots of hold outs. A huge, megaselling author I know still stubbornly uses Courier. Another NYT selling friend of mine uses Palatino and is if anything more confused than I am. Personally, I use Century School Book because I find it readable and it gives me a nice, old-fashioned 250 words per page. But I’ll admit that when my manuscript is running long, I’ll switch to Times New Roman because I know it will look shorter.
Yes, at some level we are all still in school, fiddling with margins and fonts, and deluding ourselves into thinking the teacher won’t notice.
(Ironically, the above image is taken from a 26 April 2011 article on Haggard and Halloo entitled "No more typewriters," and is about the shuttering of the world's last typewriter manufacturer, in India.)