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how big does your vocabulary need to be? Editor's Notes #96
April 15, 2011

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing
is to dress up the vocabulary,
looking for long words
because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.
This is like dressing up a household pet
in evening clothes.

--Stephen King

In this issue:

1. How many words
2. Tickled my funnybone
3. Interesting Web site
4. Writing Contest

1. How many words
An article that appeared in my inbox inspired this article.

It asks how many words a person needs to communicate effectively and quotes a non-native speaking coach who claims to do his job with only 100 words.

How many words a coach needs to get the job done is not of huge interest to me, but how many words a writer needs certainly is.

If you are just talking about vocabulary, I argue that there is no limit to the number of words a writer needs. The more words I know, the more choices I have when it comes to expressing an idea perfectly. No matter how many words I know, I am always happy to learn to use more.

If you are talking about how many words to use in writing, I argue that in most cases, the answer is, "Fewer." Most first novels will be no more than 100,000 words. When a writer approaches me with a first novel of 400,00 words, I cringe for two reasons:
  1. I know that very few publishers will even look at it.
  2. I know that the writer is unlikely to hire me unless (s)he reduces the word count drastically, because ultimately, a longer book costs more to edit than a shorter book, and I haven't yet met the writer who wants to pay me to edit 400,000 words.

But it's not only the overall length of the work that needs fewer words. Most sentences are better off with fewer words as well. In fact, instead of tossing whole chapters, some writers can eliminate half their words simply by reducing the number of words in each sentence. The more concise the writing, the more easily the reader gets through it.

Poets know this. One trademark of poetry is how hard each word is made to work. If you want to reduce your word count, read a lot of poetry, and pay attention to how the poet makes the point in so few words.

Those who write for children not only need fewer words overall, but also need to use a much smaller vocabulary. (Note that having a wide vocabulary yourself allows you to use fewer words because you can choose perfect words more often.) Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss has only 784 words, but more impressively, it has a vocabulary of only 50 words.

So the answer to the question of how many words will depend on your situation, but it will always matter.


2.Tickled my funnybone
Panda Mating Fails: Veterinarian Takes Over


3. Interesting Web site
This one could be the inspiration you've been looking for in your writing. At the very least, it is interesting.


4. Writing Contest
After languishing for a very long time in limbo, Editor's Choice, the writing contest where every entry wins (and one person wins more), is back. Inspired by the article that sparked this issues of Editor's Notes, it challenges you to write using a vocabulary of 50 words. Learn more and find the entry form at


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