Someone told me that when you're counting words in an essay, words such as "a", "the", "and", "to" do not count. Is this statement correct?
No, that statement isn't true. In a 500-word essay, "little words" like articles, conjunctions, and prepositions will typically make up about 20% of the total in the document—that's a huge amount to ignore! We've never heard of anyone counting words by leaving the little ones out.
What we have heard before are questions about how some kinds of words—like contractions, hyphenated words, and numbers—are counted. Here's some more information about these special cases.
Contractions: Contractions (such as "don't" and "I'll") are generally considered to be one word.
Hyphenated words: There's varying opinions about these. Some people would say "first-class" counts as one word, others say two. To be on the safe side, if you're short on words count them as one and if you're running over count them as two. People rarely consider longer hyphenated phrases, such as "devil-may-care," to be simply one word. If each part of a hyphenated word isn't a full word itself (as in "de-emphasize"), you should count the hyphenated word as one.
Numbers: Numbers expressed as numerals (1990, 19,582, 28) count as one word.
Abbreviations and acronyms: Abbreviations, like S.H.S. for "Smithville High School," are usually counted as if they were written out. However, common acronyms (like IBM and NAACP) that are used more often than the full name of the organization are often counted as one word.
Initials: Initials are counted as a full word. "George W. Bush" would be considered three words.
Titles: The title of your essay usually won't count towards the word limit.
An admissions office will probably use one of a few methods to count words. If they want an exact count, they may go through the document and count each word, either by hand or more likely by using a computer program. Or, they may count the number of words in a part of the document and use that information to estimate the total. For example, they might count the words in the first five lines, divide by five to figure out an average number of words per line, and then multiply the words per line by the total number of lines in the essay. Finally, an admissions officer may simply eyeball a document to make sure that it's the expected length (taking into account smaller fonts or margins). There are about 600-700 words in a single-spaced page written in 12-point font, so a 500 word essay should be shorter than a page.
Admissions officers generally don't have time to count words in the thousands of essays they read, so they're most likely to use the last method, if they care about the length of an essay at all. However, be wary of using that fact as an invitation to go over the word limit—there are some real sticklers out there. While a college would be unlikely to reject you simply because you used too many words, it makes a bad impression on some people and may indicate that you don't follow directions, aren't detail-oriented, or aren't respecting the admissions officer's time.
Finding and Removing Unnecessary Words
So you need to get a word count for the latest chapter of your novel or an essay assignment for school? Don’t worry, here are three easy-to-use tools to count your words.
Need to get a word count on your latest writing project?
Here are three tools that can help.
Why Count Words?
If you’re an experienced writer, this might already be obvious to you. However, if you’re new to writing, you need to know that keeping track of your word count is a central habit of a writer.
You count words for two main reasons.
1. Because Publishers Count Words
In school, writing assignments are usually measured by page length (e.g. please turn in a three-page essay on Jane Austen’s use of satire in Emma by Friday).
However, measuring by page-length is inaccurate and, in many cases, unhelpful. Font, spacing, and formatting changes can alter the number of pages, and if you’re writing a newspaper, magazine, or book, the pages will be in a variety of different sizes anyway. Measuring by word count, on the other hand, is consistent.
Furthermore, publishers often pay on a per-word basis, and so it makes sense for professional writers to keep track of how many words they write.
But what if you’re not a professional writer? Why should you count words then?
2. Counting Words Can Motivate You
Many famous writers have kept daily word count goals. Ernest Hemingway is reported to have written 500 words per day. Stephen King writes 2,000 words per day, even on holidays. Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope wrote 3,000 words per day.
Setting a daily word count goal can inspire you.
One of the best known word count goals is NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month). Every November, thousands of writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in a month (that’s 1,667 words per day, by the way).
Another resource for writers is my friend Jeff Goins’ 500 Words a Day Challenge, which is a 31-day writing challenge that over a thousand writers have participated in.
3 Tools to Count Words
How do you keep an accurate word count?
1. Count Words With Microsoft Word
The most-widely used word processor makes it easy to count your words.
On Windows, there are two ways to see the word count. On the Review tab, just next to Spelling and Grammar Check, and on the home ribbon beside the page number.
On Mac, you can find the word count under Tools -> Word Count.
Pro Tip: I add a shortcut to word count, ⌘ + W, to access my word count on the fly. To add the keyboard shortcut, go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts. Then select App Shortcuts, and add the menu command “Word Count…” to the list (The menu command has to be exact, so don’t forget the true ellipsis, alt + semi-colon).
2. Take Word Counts to the Next Level With Scrivener
While Microsoft Word is a decent word processor for writing essays and articles, if you’re writing a novel or book, you need a more powerful tool.
Scrivener is a perfect tool for finding your word count because it not only keeps your word count visible, it allows you to track your daily word count and the word count for your entire project. You can learn more about Scrivener on our review here.
To track your daily word count on Scrivener, go to Project > Show Project Targets (⌘++T, on Mac). This will open a popup that updates automatically as you type. Isn’t that cool?
In Scrivener, you can set the project targets to your daily word count and track your progress. Also, notice the word count visible at the bottom of the application.
3. A Fast, Online Word Counter
If you don’t have access to either of these tools, you can find, free online word counters. One of the best, in my opinion, is WordCounter.net.
Word Counter is a free, online word count tool.
Challenge Yourself to Write 1,000 Words Today
These tools can change your life.
How would your life be different if you challenged yourself to write 1,000 words a day? (Share that challenge on Twitter)
Even if you took the weekends off, in just a month, you would have 22,000 words. In six months, you would have written 132,000 words, easily enough for a long novel. After the first year, you could have written two books.
It starts by taking just a few seconds to track your words.
Do you have a daily word count goal? What is it?
Write 1,000 words today. Keep track using one of the tools above.
When you’re finished, share your best 250 words in the comments section below. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback on a few practices by other writers.