Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (2023)

When I started writing in the 1970s, counting words in an essay really meant making a rough estimate. The words had been typed on paper, and no software could me help count what was there.

Yes, we were primitive.

Today, text is data, and composing your essay in a word processor is the easiest way to get an accurate word count for essays and papers.

Microsoft Word shows the word count in the status bar. Google Docs shows the word count after you select Word Countfrom theToolsmenu. Most leading word processors show the count in both ways.

After you read this post, you will know how to use a range of reliable software to count words, as well as how to answer common word-counting questions that could help you avoid mistakes and misconceptions.

Using Eight Leading Word Processors to Count Words

The leading word processors have similar approaches to showing you the word count for your essay or paper.

Most leading word processors, such as Microsoft Word, display the word count in the status bar. The status bar lies below the editing area of the document.

Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (1)

Click the word count in the status bar to view a popup with extended information such as the number of pages, the number of characters, the number of paragraphs, and the number of lines.

Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (2)

Other word processors that display the word count in the status bar include

  • LibreOffice Writer,
  • Apache OpenOffice, and
  • WPS Office.

In contrast, Google Docs does not display the current word count by default.

To make Google Docs show the word count while you edit, do the following:

  1. SelectWord Countfrom theToolsmenu.
    Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (3)
  2. A popup will display the current word count and other statistics.
  3. TickDisplay word count while typing.
    Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (4)
  4. Click OK to close the popup.
  5. A floating word count combo box will appear near the bottom of the editing area.
    Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (5)

Other word processors that offer a Word Count item in the Tools menu include

  • Microsoft Word for the Mac,
  • LibreOffice Writer,
  • Apache OpenOffice, and
  • WPS Office.

Word processors that don’t have a Tools menu place their Word Count command elsewhere.

In Microsoft Word for Windows and in Microsoft Word on the Web, there is no Tools menu: the Word Count button is on the Review tab of the ribbon.

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In the Pages word processor, on the Mac, get the word count in the following way:

  1. Select Show Word Count from the View menu.
    Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (7)
  2. The word count will appear and remain at the bottom of the editing area.
    Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (8)
  3. Hide this word count information again by selecting Hide Word Count from the View menu.

The following table summarizes how leading word processors allow you to count the words in your essays, papers, compositions, or other documents.

Word Count in Leading Word Processing Applications

Counting Words in a Section or Subset of Your Document

What if you don’t want to count all the words in your document? For instance, what if you want to count only the words in a single sentence, paragraph, or section of your essay? You can do that.

Count the words in a subset of your document by first selecting the text you want to count, then look at the word count in the status bar or choose Word Count from the Tools menu to find out the number of words in the text selection.

Inserting Word Count Automatically

A teacher or editor may require you to include the word count for your work in the document itself.

Of course, you could simply type the current word count into the document before you submit itand nothing is wrong with that.

However, some word processors allow you to insert a special field that will display the word count and dynamically update with changes.

In Microsoft Word, insert the word count field into the document with these steps:

  1. Place your text cursor in the document where you want the word count to appear.
  2. On the Insert tab of the ribbon, click the Field button.
    Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (9)
  3. The Field dialog box will pop up. Select Document Information under Categories, then select NumWords under Field Names.
    Counting Words in Your Essay or Paper: How and what to count | Sentence Warrior (10)
  4. Click OK.

In LibreOffice Writer, insert the word count field into the document with these steps:

  1. Place your text cursor in the document where you want the word count to appear.
  2. On the Insert tab or menu, click Field.
  3. The Fields window will pop up. In the Type list, select Statistics. In the Select list, select Words.
  4. Click the Insert button.
  5. Click the Close button.

Using Online Tools to Count Words

If you are composing in an application that doesn’t tell you the word count, you can use an online tool in your Web browser to count the words in the text.

To use an online word-counting tool, do the following:

  1. Select text in the document and copy it to the clipboard.
  2. Switch to the browser tab that contains the online tool and paste from the clipboard into the edit area on the page.
  3. The online tool will display the word count and usually other statistics about the text as well.

I tested eight online word-counting tools using text that I had previously word-counted using Microsoft Word.

The following six online tools gave the same word-count total as Microsoft Word:

Which Words in Your Essay or Paper to Count

All the words in your essay contribute to the word count, even short ones. This includes

  • personal pronouns (I, he, she),
  • definite and indefinite articles (the, a, an),
  • prepositions (at, in, for),
  • numbers, both spelled out (seven) and written in numeric form (9,672),
  • acronyms (CIA, NAACP).

Initials written with a space separating them from other text count as individual words. Thus, George H. W. Bush counts as four words.

Hyphenated words (check-in, know-it-all, father-in-law) are counted as one word.

Contractions (won’t, couldn’t) count as one word.

Numbers combined with symbols such as a dollar sign ($42) or percent sign (99%) count as one word.

Footnotes and endnotes are not usually included in a word count, but Microsoft Word will count them by default.

To prevent Microsoft Word from counting words in footnotes and endnotes, do the following:

  1. Click the word count in the status bar to bring up the Word Count dialog box.
  2. Untick the checkbox labeled Include footnotes and endnotes.
  3. Click the Close button.

If you are assigned essays with both a word count target and footnotes or endnotes, check with your professors or teachers to find out their rules for whether to count words in footnotes and endnotes. If you don’t have time to check, assume that the text in footnotes and endnotes should not be included in the word count.

Normally, bibliographies and references would not be included in your word count.

Microsoft Word counts the words in captions (e.g. below figures, charts, and pictures), and this is likely to be the correct behavior in most situations.

The title and title page material should not be included in the word count.

Whether headings, and subheadings should be included in the word count depends on the policies of the instructors, schools, or clients involved. The decision to count headings will matter more in compositions where headings are more numerous, such as in advanced academic writing (e.g. theses). In such cases it is especially important to find out what the rules are ahead of time and adhere to them.

Words in direct quotations, including shorter quoted text or longer, block-quoted text, should be included in the word count. Whether you are quoting too much is likely to matter when judging the quality of the essay, so don’t quote more simply to drive up the count!

If your instructor or institution has rules about word counts that differ from your word processor’s word counting behavior, you may opt to individually select and count the allowed parts, then total all the counts. Another option is take the word count provided by your word processor, then subtract an estimate of the word count of the parts that should not be counted.

How Close to the Target Word Count Must You Be?

Many instructors and institutions have a “10% rule,” meaning that your word count may be within 10% of the target word count in either direction.

Using the 10% rule, an essay for a 500-word assignment should be not fewer than 450 words and not more than 550.

Why Do We Count Words?

Teachers, schools, and publications have good reasons for specifying target word counts for writing.

One thing to understand is that a word count requirement is almost always a required range of word counts (often ranging from 10% below to 10% above the stated requirement).

This means that there is an implied minimum word count and an implied maximum word count for the assignment.

So, we will divide this answer into three parts: good reasons to require a range of word counts, good reasons to specify a minimum word count, and good reasons to specify a maximum word count.

Good reasons to specify a range of word counts:

  • Some professions (and academia) often require word counts on writing, making writing to a specified length a valuable skill to learn.
  • Instructors are able to grade essays more fairly in comparison to each other when they are approximately the same length.
  • Different types of writing simply require different lengths: a novel is longer than a novella; a novella is (usually) longer than a short story.
  • Different genres require different lengths.
  • A publication may have a length of article that fits its brand or satisfies its audience.

Reasons for minimum word counts:

  • Teachers want students to engage with a topic at adequate depth. A certain length for the essay is a proxy for that.
  • Teachers want students to learn to write with sufficient evidence and level of detail.
  • Teachers want students to learn to organize larger amounts of material.

Good reasons for maximum word counts:

  • Readers and scorers may have limited time and a great many essays to read.
  • Teachers want students to learn to write concisely.

How to Count Words in Handwritten Text and Other Hard Copy Material

Occasionally you may need to estimate the word count of text, even in the 21st century.

Reasons to estimate word counts:

  • You may prefer (or be required) to write drafts of your essays by hand and need to know if you are close to the target word count.
  • You may write journal entries daily and are wondering how many words you have written in the past year.
  • You may be curious to know how many words are in a published book.

Below I explain one method of estimating word count for short works, such as school essays, and a second method for longer works, up to novel length.

To estimate the number of words in a fairly short essay, do the following:

  1. Calculate the average number of words in a full line (count the total number of words in five to ten full lines and divide by the number of lines you counted).
  2. Count the number of full lines in the essay.
  3. Calculate the total number of words in full lines (multiply the average number of words in a full line by the number of full lines).
  4. Simply count the number of words in all partial lines.
  5. Estimate the total number of words in the essay by adding the number of words in full lines to the total number of words in partial lines.

Using this method on a short essay, I came within 3 words:

  • The essay had 48 full lines.
  • I calculated an average of 14 words per full line.
  • The number of words in partial lines was 69.
  • Microsoft Word reported that the essay had 738 words.
  • 14*48+69 = 741 words. Close!

To estimate the word count for a longer work, do the following:

  1. Find a page with average word density (i.e. an average number of partial and full lines for this book — use your judgment after thumbing through the book).
  2. Count all the words on this average page.
  3. Multiply the count of words on this page by the number of pages in the book.

Using this method, I was able come within 2.1% of the reported word count for J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers.

  • According to lotrproject.com, The Two Towers has 156,198 words.
  • My edition of the novel has 443 pages (after subtracting 14 pages for table of contents, maps, and so forth).
  • The “average” page I picked out had 353 words.
  • 443 * 353 = 152,849. Fairly close!

Of course, if you choose the wrong “average” page your estimated total word count may miss the mark by a great deal. To improve the accuracy, you could count the words on three pages of average density and divide by three.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to be as quick as possible, you can pick out any half page that seems to have the right density, count the words in that half page, and multiply by two to get the average density for a page.

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