On word counts in text editors. Or: devs must meet target audience expectations when deciding on features
Brett Terpstra is currently putting together a comparison document of iOS text editors, with the help of anyone who wants to contribute. It is turning into a wonderful thing for writers, who can now pop over there and do a quick scan to see what editor will best suit them. When the spreadsheet was first devised, word and character counts were missing from the list—something that has since been rectified.
The omission of counts is surprisingly common when it comes to text editors in their early stages and, in some cases, even when they’ve been knocking around for a while; in fact, iA Writer was initially missing any kind of count in its iOS app, and the Mac version lacks an on-screen count in windowed mode. This caused me to utter the following on Twitter:
Note to devs: if your text editor doesn’t include word and char counts, you’ve just rendered it useless for many writers.
Developer Alastair Houghton responded:
Note to writers: word counts are a much harder problem than you might imagine. You may want to be more specific.
Which is fair enough.
I find it curious so many text editors initially lack counts, but I suspect that’s because they’re created by engineers and developers who don’t do a lot of writing themselves, or at least only write without being commissioned by editors. But writing isn’t just about smashing out words—it’s often about smashing out a specific number of words.
When I write for a publication, I will be supplied with a brief (or a response to a pitch I’ve made) and a count. In the US and UK, this is most often a word count. In Europe and occasionally in the UK, character counts will be used instead. For print, this is generally a strict target, because copy has to fit into a predefined space. Online, there is more flexibility, but you will still be paid by the word or character, and so there’s not much point in writing five times what you’re commissioned to, unless you’re rich and just writing for yucks. (Additionally, focus and clarity are important in written copy—shorter pieces online tend to be read in their entirety. Write too much and you risk flabby copy, which won’t win you further commissions.)
On knowing your target, you need a mechanism to see how close to it you are: hence a word- and/or character-count in a text editor. Without this, you risk falling short (meaning you have to rewrite or, worse, ‘pad’ a piece of text) or massively overwriting (resulting in brutal editing, often cutting out great text that then becomes worthless). Either way, you’re potentially wasting time. And even if you do overwrite (which is very common—I typically edit down features from anything up to double the commissioned count), you still need to know how close to your target you are while working. This is because in-house staff won’t be happy if you file 5,000 words of copy for a 2,000-word commission. Regularly make a production editor’s job harder and they’ll mention this to the editor and you won’t be getting more work from that publication.
If you’re working on a text editor, here are three count mechanisms I recommend checking out, in apps I use myself:
- iA Writer for iOS: Optionally has an on-screen title bar that includes ongoing word- and character-counts. I’d also like to see a selection count, but just having the total document count is acceptable.
- WriteRoom for Mac: Optionally includes statistics in the title bar in windowed mode at the bottom-left in full-screen mode.
- Scrivener: Provides an on-screen word- and character-count, but also enables you to define a target for the current document. A bar then displays clearly how close you are to meeting this target.
Really, though, this is all about one of the most important aspects of development: learning the needs of your audience and how they use what you create. When it comes to writing, many writers need to know how much they’ve written, and so if you’re not providing that information (preferably permanently on-screen, but at the very least through a keyboard shortcut), you’ve failed them and they will very likely move to a rival app. But in a more general sense, this is the case for any app for any platform: exclude something enough of your audience considers essential and you are reducing your potential sales.