The Mail Never Fails

I’ve debated the longer-form answer format, and in this round, it lost out to bullet style answering. It’s about time I clear out my question backlog anyway. Inquiring minds want answers. Good thing I’ve got those on hand.

[Insert common writing mistake here]

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Is it possible to really use too many adverbs? 

—Greg Simpson, Albany, N.Y. 

Absolutely positively yes. For every adverb, there’s a remarkably stronger verb or adjective. Use those instead. Seriously.

I’ve got a great story in the works; it’s a mystery with a twist ending. Should I make it a short story, a novella, or a novel?

—JoAnn Hendersen, Kirkland, Wash. 

Doesn’t a mystery end with a twist anyway? Go write it as a mystery novel where the twist is that it’s actually a short story. Let me know how that works out.

Hi, I hope you can answer my question. I’m thinking of entering the chick-lit genre, but I need to know whether a first-person or third-person narrative is the most appropriate. Thanks!

—Ruth Hambrick, Columbia, S.C. 

Appropriateness is irrelevant. Aesthetics are everything.

First person: “I was lonely.” Pedestrian.

Third person: “Cinthya was lonely.” Bland.

Use the fourth-person instead: “One could be lonely.” Ambiguous, intriguing, effective.

You seem in the know when it comes to literary trends. In this age of communication, do you think there’d be a market for text-message based epistolary novels?

—Robbie Bryant, Redding, CA.

y not? r u 4 rl? not that i h8 on new forms of lit, but rly? cant c this gettin off the grnd. u can try 2 rite 1, sure, but its not going ne where, not even in todays age of communication. can u imagin readin this thing? i dont thin [SEND]

Shucks. Reached my character limit.

I’ve read that Shakespear [sic] knew or used about 3,000 [definitely sic] words in his writing. since he’s pretty much the best there is, even though there’s no one better, how many words on average should a writer know?

—Casey Cruz, Edgewood, N.M.

On average, a writer needs to know about one million, three hundred fifty-six thousand, seven hundred eighty-one words, give or take. You can get by with an even million, but the more words you know, the better. Some writers knew upwards of a billion words, like William Shakespeare. When it comes to vocabulary, you need to know where you stand. The best way to figure out your vocabulary is to write out all of the words you know.

Here’s a handy chart to go by:

50-100 words: I don’t know if you’re trolling or just being stupid.

100-250 words: (see above)

500-1000 words: Finish preschool first before considering a career in writing.

1000-10,000 words: Below average, just like everyone one.

10,000-30,000 words: You might be qualified to write a letter to the editor of a small town newspaper. I’m talking small, population in the dozens.

30,000-75,000 words: Good work in maximizing the use of “your,” “you’re,” and “ur.”

75,000-500,000 words: If you break the 75,000-word barrier, then you could be mistaken for a literate human being.

500,000-1,000,000 words: You are capable of constructing a Flesch-Kincaid sentence with a reading level of 10.

1,000,000-1,500,000 words: Congratulations! As long as you have a decent idea, you can probably write a story (even if it’s a crappy one).

1,500,000-5,000,000 words: Most good writers find themselves well within this range.

5,000,000-500,000,000 words: Most of the best writers stop here, only because they have better things to write.

500,000,000-1,000,000,000 (that’s one billion): John Milton. Ain’t no one touchin’ him.

1,000,000,000+: William Shakespeare, because he’s the boss. And he could so take on John Milton in a fight.

1,967,677,323.98: Dictionary bot? DISQUALIFIED.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (, followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and entered as a racehorse, since it doesn’t exceed the 15-character limit.


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