This is something that I've been meaning to write about for the better part of a month now, but I've been putting it off because it seemed too difficult to explain. I think that this is partly what has been holding me up from posting more updates on how my writing/editing is going, also, since I need to make this post before I can properly inform you of my progress.
The issue is how word count is reported. I've always just been one to hit the "Word Count" option under the Tools menu in Word, and leave it at that. Seems simple enough, right? That's the actual word count.
Well, I've recently learned that most of the publishing industry still doesn't think in those terms -- they want to know the estimated word count, which is 250 words x number of pages in standard format (12 pt. Times New Roman, double spacing, 1" margins all around, et cetera). See Anne Mini's Word Count category for her detailed first-hand explanations of why that is, and how this works. Suffice it to say that, based on the acceptable word counts that many agents mention on websites and blog posts, and then the corresponding page counts that they mention on occasion, you'll see that Anne is right, and that there is still an overt expectation that you use estimated word count instead of actual.
This means that, when I initially queried THE GUARDIAN with 145,000 words, the agents were probably thinking the equivalent of what you would consider 162,000 "actual" words, when really I should have told them something closer to 118,900 words. When I shrunk my novel to 96,000 words, it was actually more like 84,000 words in their parlance. 80,000 words is what they would consider 320 pages, so that's right in the sweet spot of the range for most debut fiction (80,000-100,000 estimated words).
Please note that there is not absolute conversion factor between estimated and actual word count, even if your manuscript is already in perfect standard format (hence the conversion factor discrepancies between my numbers above). It's all about how many pages you wind up with, which can obviously vary a lot if most of your chapters happen to end with a page that only has one or two lines of text, versus if your chapters largely happen to end right at the bottom of each page. Depending on how many chapters you have, this could throw you off by several thousand words one way or the other.
Right now, however, my actual word count for ALDEN RIDGE is 31,287, and my estimated word count is 27,750. Previously my target was about 95,000 actual words. From now on, however, I'm going to ignore the actual word count, and just shoot for about 80,000-85,000 estimated words. That will probably work out to about the same thing.
At any rate, I figured this estimated-word-count expectation was a little-known fact in the aspiring author crowd. It's certainly not something I had ever encountered before Anne started talking about it on her blog. Hope this was useful!