Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Science Discovers Secret To Writing a Best Seller

[Edit, Since I discovered the paper and wrote this, I noticed that the interwebs have exploded with people linking to, and commenting on this story. Since this isn't actual news to most peoples at this point, please enjoy the picture I inserted.]

Seriously, that isn't link bait. It's an actual thing. I found this paper over the past weekend wherein the geniuses at Stonybrook University have finally cracked the code to writing a best seller.

They poured over the texts of thousands and thousands of books and looked for commonalities, not in plotting, or structure, but in prose. They then compared to a long list of underperforming books to see what they did differently, again, speaking strictly of prose.

And they found out a lot of stuff. Namely, when comparing just the prose of all those books, they can tell with an 84% reliability* of whether or not it was a best seller by just looking at the prose itself.

Now, since I wasted spent quite a bit of time looking at the paper, I think I can distill it down to a few simple points. However, I do encourage you to sit down and read through it if you can, it's written like most academic papers are, which is to say, dryly. But the information it contains is pretty interesting. And if you go over the first few pages carefully, you can probably see some flaws in their sampling methods.
This has nothing to do with my post. I just had this doodle, took a picture with my phone, hit the 'drama' button and... ta da!

Despite that, I think it's brilliant topic. I really hope I find more like it.

So, anyway, what are some takeaways?

1) Quit with the damned adverbs: That one might be obvious to any that spend much time reading those writing tips that are everywhere online. Turns out, science agrees. The folks that wrote the paper don't editorialize on why any of their findings might be indicators, but I know that I tend to not enjoy adverbs that much at all (especially in dialog tags).  But that's just me, a reader. As a writer I know that we have to use them sometimes, but I suppose it's like adding salt to your cake mix. A little can make it amazing, a lot can make it gross.

2) Write something that scores higher on the Flesch Index: What's that, you ask? Simply put, it's how readable the prose is, for example, the paper I linked to in the opening paragraph probably has a very low score on the Flesch Index, you want a higher score here. That isn't to say that people are dumb either, it can just mean that you write confusing sentences. So, you don't have to dumb it down, just don't make it harder to read than it should be.

3) Don't use Verbs: Wait, what? What the hell are they talking about? You know, after all the defending I do for Science, it irks me they go and tell me to quit using verbs. I mean, it's hard to send my hero on an epic quest to save the world when I can't have her, you know, actually do stuff. Which, of course, leads me to my final point.

4) Don't pay too much attention to that paper: I do think it's fun to look at, and I appreciate the effort to qualitatively show correlations in what makes works successful and what doesn't. Even if it is mostly unusable information. I hope they keep going. But at the same time, pointing out that successful books use words like 'and' isn't really the deep sort of insight I was hoping to get when I started reading.

*Not really, but it's hard to make a bold statement if I have to follow it up with a bunch of qualifiers. So, just go with the 84 number, okay?

20 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hey, if the paper doesn't score high on the Flesch Index, then why is anyone reading it?
So nothing about adjectives? Take those out and I guess the story is supposed to be all nouns. Just people, places, and things...
Nice doodle, by the way!

stu said...

Princess. Dragon. Heroes. Journey. Fewer Heroes. One less Dragon. Treasure. The End.

One story, mostly in nouns. Ish.

Pat Dilloway said...

Damn all those verbs mucking up perfectly good sentences!

Jo said...

I don't think anyone can really tell what makes a successful book. I have read several excellent books recently which I got for free for my Kindle but which have never, apparently, made the grade.

Love Stu's story.

Tony Laplume said...

I've been developing a simpler writing style for a few years. So hopefully I'm getting closer to be publishable.

Andrew Leon said...

I was listening to this thing with Neil Gaiman the other day, and he stands by the adverbs, which is what I've been saying all along. So, yeah, down with King.

And I heard about the study on the radio or something, and you have about the same reaction as me to the whole thing about verbs. I mean, what the heck?

The boy, while sitting, the colorful sky. An apple.

Andrew Leon said...

Wait wait!

Let's make that:
The boy, while sitting, the colorful sky. An apple eaten.

mooderino said...

I was a bit thrown by that verb one too. I'm not sure that paper was all that well thought out. Or all that useful.

mood
Moody Writing

Maurice Mitchell said...

This sounds like a handy guide, but not a tool. I'm sure all great writing, like Shakespeare, wouldn't pass this test. I just started using http://read-able.com to check the readability of my posts though.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I'm confused by this list. That's probably why I'm not a best seller.

Brinda said...

#4 is my favorite tip. :)

Melissa Bradley said...

An interesting paper for sure, but I do think there are some flaws to their logic as they go along. Still, there are some good points to take away.

Cindy said...

I have to give you a lot of credit for even trying to read that paper. I took one look and cringed.

Briane P said...

I way back when did a post on how to create the Next Bestseller and it had nothing to do with science, or "science" as I like to say.

DID THESE "SCIENTISTS" ACCOUNT FOR ADVERTISING BUDGETS ON THE BOOKS, FOR EXAMPLE? How did they control for that? Did they control for sequels to popular books? Did they control for time of publication?

I bet not.

Anyway, using this information, I can now reveal that my own next book which will make a million dollars is:

THE GUY AND GIRL WHO DID NOT EVER TAKE ACTION.

(He said, snappily.)

Sarah Allen said...

Very interesting. I actually just got a job doing grant and fundraising writing and am reading all about the Flesch index :)

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

Deborah Walker said...

Hee. Hee. That has piqued my curiosity. No verbs? I like it.

But then again I like adverbs. So I clearly don't know what I'm talking about.


Heather Holden said...

This is the first time I'm hearing about this article. Fascinating! Don't use verbs, though? That's mind-boggling to me...

Christine Rains said...

I've been hearing a lot about this article, and I agree with you. Don't put too much stock in it. Science is awesome, but writing is an art. There are some things you can't quantify.

The Beans said...

I have issues curbing my use of adverbs. It's been a life-long process of baby steps...

-Barb

Nigel G. Mitchell said...

Dang, I got suckered into that paper. I like your analysis. But how funny is it that they used a Dan Brown novel for the negative side? Should have used "Fifty Shades of Gray" as well.