Word count is a statistic most readers don’t consciously consider, but it affects both the writers, translators, and readers whether they realize it or not.
If you hang out with translation professionals or writers (and if you do, you have my sympathies!) then you’ve likely heard the term word count a million times. We all must seem obsessed with word count to people who don’t deal with text on a daily basis. For writers and translators and other text-based professionals, word counts are incredibly important, but for people outside of our fields it’s a slightly exotic term. Certainly you can grasp what it means immediately: The number of words in a document or work. But why are we obsessed with it? Why bother counting the words in a website, for example?
For a lot of text or language professionals, like we humble translation pros, word count is often how we invoice for our work. For example, I might be hired to translate a website written in French into English. Billing by page or by time spent can be misleading; I have a lot of experience and I can work quickly even if the work is challenging. But just because I work quickly doesn’t mean the work didn’t require effort, so being paid by the hour might mean I don’t earn a fair wage for the work. Invoicing based on word count is a much fairer and accurate metric to go by, and has the advantage of scaling accurately across a wide variety of media.
Another important reason to count the words on your website involves your target audience – what kind of material are you writing and who is aimed at? Readers rarely think about word counts, but there are “sweet spots” for every type of material and readers are unconsciously aware of them. Novels, for example, are usually somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words long – longer, and they look intimidating on the shelf and a whole segment of the potential audience skips them. Shorter, and they look thin, like they’re not worth the price. Web articles are generally about 1,000 words, blog posts about 500, because these lengths look right to readers and can be absorbed in a short time.
The type of venue also matters. Some magazines encourage longer articles, some web sites don’t actually use “articles” at all, but rather pithy, brief sentences with a lot of graphics. In order to know what kind of work you should be producing, you need to know what kind of word count you’re expected to use as a goal. Word Count ends up as the most informative metric you can be given as a professional, whether you’re writing or processing words like in translation work. And it’s incredibly important to you as a reader whether you consciously realise it or not.
Of course, there are always exceptions. There are classic novels that clock in at less than 50,000 words, and there are blog posts that go on for tens of thousands of words and no one complains. As with all metrics, word count is important – right up until it isn’t.