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This one is for T.

I’m always a little amused at being reminded that, in my corner of the world, measuring a written text in words, is still a somewhat alien notion. No, really. I still run into people who go round eyed and ask how on earth are they going to keep count – and are genuinely amazed to discover that any word processor will do it for them…

And then there are  the objections – that come in several flavours – and just yesterday I was confronted again with one perplexity that will crop up now and then: why words? Why not, say, pages or lines? When it comes to lines, I always tell the wonderful story of Alexandre Dumas, who had a contract with Le Constitutionnel, for 100000 lines per year, at 1.50 francs per line. The fact is that Dumas was, rather like Dickens, a very prolific writer of serial novels, and often had more than one going at the same time – so it happened that he found himself running late for the next installment.

Then he would produce things like the following little exchange between the famously not very talkative Athos and his even more taciturn servant Grimaud:

– Well?
– Nothing.
– Nothing?
– Nothing.
– How…?
– Nothing, I tell you.
– Impossible.
– I’m certain.
– But are you sure?
– Damn sure!
– It’s too much.
– So it is.

Twelve lines, twenty-four words in total – and yes, it is the same in the original French. Incidentally, at 1.50 francs per line, it makes 18 francs, that is 0,75 francs per word. Not bad, Monsieur Dumas.

And if you read a good deal of Dumas’s work – not just the Musketeers or Monte Cristo, but also a few less known things – you’ll find that this kind of dialogue… happens.

With this I don’t mean to say that Dumas was a cheat: a man of the theatre as  much as he was a novelist, he knew a good deal about the  effects of pace rhythm in dialogue, and even the snippet above, while not hugely meaningful, still manages to add to the idea of Athos as the sort of man who will be curt even in agitated insistence. And I’ll grant it’s not always the case with these shortcuts, and sometimes it just shows – but then, when you are to deliver a little less than 2000 lines a week, a dozen quick one-word lines won’t change things by much, will they?

So no, I’m not trying to call Dumas on anything. Just to show to  that, when you consider that 12 lines in TNR 12 can easily contain some 200 words,  it becomes obvious why measuring a text in lines may not be the most efficient of methods.