Monday, February 6, 2012

By the numbers (But don't "buy" the numbers)

Have you ever had this problem, writers? You step away from your computer and your novel-in-progress, only to return to witness all of your words being erased -- word by word, line by line -- because your "delete" key is stuck?

This happened to me a couple years ago and ever since, I've been jotting down the word count when I start a new chapter or after I've added a particularly hard-fought paragraph to my manuscript. See that photo above? Those are my numbers from last week. Looks kind of crazy, doesn't it? Sort of like this?:

Anyways, since I've been manually keeping track of my numbers, I've been able to notice a weird quirk in Microsoft Word: the software is actually pretty shitty at calculating word counts, or at least remaining consistent in how it performs the calculation.

Here's what I mean. Almost every time I return to my manuscript (after I've rebooted my computer) I find that the word count -- which I compulsively recorded on my notepad -- has changed, in either the plus or the minus, depending.

When I first noticed the problem, I would get very paranoid. "Did I hit a few keys by mistake?" "Did I delete something without noticing?" "Oh $#!%, oh $#!%, oh $#!%!!" and I'd re-read entire sections looking for my error. But I never found one.

What I did find, however, was this very valuable lesson: While you should always trust your words, dear writers, never ever completely trust your Word.


  1. interesting! i am obsessed with word count (i check it every few minutes) but i haven't noticed it. i did once have a quirk where word change the file name constantly without telling me - like several times an hour or more, so i had fun trying to figure out which file corresponded to the most recent draft.

    1. I think, sometimes, that we should go back to writing with quills and parchment. But then I think, no.

  2. But on your manual count, your word count went down from page 64 to 65 - so how do you tell if there's something wrong like a stuck delete key?

  3. I'm not as worried about the delete key getting stuck these days. Counting like this also really helps make feel confident that I have opened the right file and that I haven't made some weird error like delete an entire paragraph. Writing it down also helps me remember what the last major change was that I performed. What are you, anyways, Matt: the word count police?

  4. Yes.

    I would just freak out if I opened a chapter and I had less words than the chapter before. I'd be looking for disappeared words that didn't disappear and would probably go as far as to question the cats.

    They know things.