Word count oddness

I have a very fiddly editor who demands that a regular column be a very exact word count. (Most of the material in this pulbication is written in-house, so they’re used to having things fit perfectly; I’m one of the few outsiders, and don’t want to lose my work because my stuff regularly doesn’t fit.)

I solve this by writing to a character count rather than a word count, and by counting it on the Mac Widget, which is normally very accurate.

But I’m finding that Scrivener and the Mac widget are disagreeing violently. For instance, on a current piece, the Scrivener count says it’s

Words 439, Chars 2,655

but the Widget says it’s

Words 532, Characters 2206

What’s happening here?

A quick (and probably useless) suggestion, and a general comment. Please forgive me if any of them are obvious to you - sometimes it is the obvious things we overlook.

Check that they are both counting the same things. Could there be annotations, footnotes, titles etc. in your document that are being counted by the Widget and not by Scrivener (is Scrivener set to exclude them for instance, but they are in the final document)?

In general, there will be discrepancies between word counts depending on the algorithm used: are numbers included or excluded, is frog-leap one word or two, etc. so you would expect to see some variation. Although I do think the differences here seem a little large for this to be a likely explanation, unless you are dealing with some fairly non-standard text that could hit on one of those idiosyncrasies regularly.

What I find most surprising is that Scriv’s character count is much larger than the Widget, while the word count is smaller. Could it be that Scriv is counting spaces, while the Mac widget is not?

Incidentally, what does a manual word count come out as for you?

As I said, just a few guesses and things to look at. I know there are others here that work to word and character limits, so they may have some other suggestions or explanations.


Scrivener’s character count certainly does count spaces, so that may account for the difference. I have no idea what particular Mac widget you mean as you don’t specify so I can’t look at it myself, but in general you will find that word counts especially vary between programs. Character count is normally fairly constant except where some programs don’t count spaces (most do - though incidentally you can get the count without spaces in Scrivener via the Text Statistics). Word counts are more variable because some programs may count a single piece of punctuation - a hyphen separated by spaces for instance - as a word, whereas others (correctly) do not; some count a hyphenated word as two words, some as a single word (there is no right or wrong in this, as some hyphenated words should be considered a single unit, some should not). And so on.

All the best,

The widget I’m talking about is called Word Counter and is available here: supermagnus.com/ - it’s one of the things I have accessible by hitting Fn-F12 on my MacBook.

Did you test how it counts characters? I just downloaded it and it took about three seconds to see that it doesn’t count spaces in the character count - hence the discrepancy.
All the best,

Hmm. This makes things difficult.

I have one piece of copy that I always count at 3300 characters in the widget, which satisfies that particular publication. But if it’s not counting spaces, how is that copy always coming to the same length? This is strange!

By the way, how does Scrivener’s Word Count estimate what a word is?

I’m not sure what you mean about things being difficult - that has to do with the widget, I assume.

Scrivener’s word count uses Apple’s code for determining what a word is. When you double-click in the text of a program using Apple’s text engine, the word gets selected. That is what the Apple text engine determines as a word - Scrivener uses that for counting words. It is fairly accurate - at least as accurate as similar programs. I did a check with a document containing hundreds of thousands of words against Word, Nisus, Mellel and others some time ago. The word count in Scrivener came out very close to Nisus and Word, with Mellel being a little different to all, I believe. (No application had exactly the same word count, because of the subtleties involved in determining what a word is.)

Hmm. This is why I usually count by characters (when dealing with fiddly customers, anyway) - because every word counter has a different philosophy on what a word is.

Some regard six characters (including spaces) as a word; others regard anything with a space on either side as a word.

The reason I’m surprised that the Word Counter widget satisfies my own particular fiddly customers is that if it counts without spaces, this means the character count must be, umm, odd.

If I had a long piece full of short words, it would normally take up more space than an extended article exploding with polysyllables, because the spaces that Word Counter doesn’t count would be greater in number in the piece full of short words.

Of course, your fiddly editor cares not a whit what character count you were shooting for or got in your widget. The fiddly editor just cares that he or she got from you the right number of column inches (i.e. within typesetter’s smooshing distance) for the job.

If I understand correctly, the editor asked for a certain number of words, and it was you who approached this via character count. Thus, somewhere in that process, you decided how many characters to shoot for when the editor said he or she needed N words. If you did this by taking an existing piece you had done for the column that was known to be of length perfecto, and put this in the widget to see how many characters it was, then voila! mystery solved. You have been targeting a character count figure that was already adjusted to not counting spaces (and–with no knock to your versatility of style–your average word length just does not vary that much).

Ditch the widget. If you want character count for precision, not counting spaces is not an option. Which begs the final question: why you are using a widget to count character length of text, since this figure is given to you in several places in Scrivener (and in every word processor I can think of).


P.S. We can also surmise that your fiddly editor is not that fiddly, else he or she would have given you the assignment in character count. Somebody’s fiddly around here, but maybe not the editor. :astonished:

Way back before word processors, the rule was that 12 point Courier, double-spaced, with 1" margins all around, gave 250 words per page. Which is of course only an average, and only accurate for words of average length, but it’s a number on which publishers, authors, and typesetters could all agree.

Then along came word processors, which pointed out the inconvenient truth that
See Spot run
advanced semiconductor manufacturing
both count as three words, but require vastly different amounts of space. What’s a poor typesetter to do?

Some ask for character counts. Some continue to require the old Courier format. Some supply templates. Things get even more entertaining when there are figures and tables and equations involved, or when the author is paid by the word. But there really isn’t a universal solution.

For your purposes, though, you don’t have to worry about any of that. Just recalibrate your standard to use Scrivener instead. Take several pieces known to satisfy your editor’s requirements. Ask Scrivener what it thinks the word counts are. Calculate an average, and use that number as your target for future work. (If you need it, it’s easy enough to calculate the widget-to-Scrivener conversion factor, too.)