This post by Craig Snider
I recently read an article from NPR about a recent study by Stony Brook University, who created an algorithm that identified stylistic markers of successful novels. This allowed researchers to accurately (up to 84%) predict the success of a novel, though it is important to note that “success” was commercial rather than critical.
While we all know that art cannot be quantified, and that the public often gobbles up works that seem to have been written by a twelve year old, it is interesting to note some the of the results of the study. The one that caught my eye was this: “The researchers found that books that used a lot of “thinking verbs,” such as “remember,” or “recognize,” were more successful than ones with plenty of “emotional or action verbs,” such as “jump” or “shout” or “cry.” And contrary to the accepted wisdom, books with fewer verbs and more nouns and adjectives tended to be more successful.”
This is contrary to the majority of writing advice we’ve received over the years. Most writers will suggest using concrete verbs, and to strictly limit our adjectives. Now, that doesn’t mean we should change our styles, but it is something to note.
The other fascinating result of the study was this: “Finally, and most unexpectedly, the researchers found that “readability” and the success of novels are negatively correlated. They note that it isn’t necessarily because readers are attracted to complicated language — they speculate instead that successful books dealing with complicated ideas need complex syntax to express those ideas.”
This is encouraging. It tells us readers don’t mind challenging language, and may actually seek it out.
Most writers, at least myself, tend to believe the general reading audience is less discerning than more literary inclined readers, but this study makes me reconsider my narrow belief.
What do you think of the study?
Read the NPR article here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/01/10/261360734/book-news-will-your-book-sell-there-s-an-algorithm-for-that?utm_content=socialflow&utm_campaign=nprbooksfacebook&utm_source=nprbooks&utm_medium=facebook
Read the study here: http://aclweb.org/anthology/D/D13/D13-1181.pdf