Big Data shows writ­ers don’t al­ways fol­low their own ad­vice

Math meets fic­tion in Ben Blatt’s unique new of­fer­ing

Metro Canada (Calgary) - - BOOKS - Genna Buck Metro Canada By the num­Bers

Math­e­ma­ti­cian and jour­nal­ist Ben Blatt, au­thor of the new book Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, set out to see what big data had to say about some of the big­gest names in books.

He dig­i­tally an­a­lyzed the thou­sands of texts, from clas­sics to best­sellers, and came up with some sur­pris­ing find­ings.

No­to­ri­ous ad­verb-hater Ernest Hem­ing­way, for in­stance, was an av­er­age ad­verb user. Fan-fic­tion au­thors use a colos­sal num­ber of ex­cla­ma­tion points. And yes, Rus­sian lit­er­ary gi­ant Vladimir Nabokov had a cu­ri­ous fond­ness for the ad­jec­tive “mauve.” Metro spoke with Blatt about the se­crets hid­ing in our favourite reads. But I did spend some time go­ing through clas­sic ad­vice from writ­ers. For ex­am­ple, El­more Leonard said not to use ex­cla­ma­tion points.

At the time, he was ac­tu­ally an av­er­age user of ex­cla­ma­tion points. Then, he fol­lowed his own ad­vice and started us­ing hardly any.

That was a re­oc­cur­ring pat­tern: A lot of times writ­ers tend to give ad­vice on things they might not be fol­low­ing them­selves. Look­ing at the num­bers is more in­for­ma­tive.

What were some of the most sur­pris­ing find­ings?

In the last 50 to 55 years, the sen­tences have got­ten shorter and words have got­ten sim­pler in New York Times best­sellers. It’s about two grade lev­els. The most com­plex book since 2010 would have been the most sim­ple in the 1960s. It’s a very no­tice­able shift in what is con­sid­ered writ­ing that would reach the masses.

Any new in­sights into well­known writ­ers?

A lot of writ­ers say not to open on weather. But Danielle Steele, who is one of the most-read au­thors writ­ing to­day, I went through 90 of her books, and close to 50 per cent be­gin with weather.

I also looked at which au­thors used 4,000 of the most com­mon clichés. In par­tic­u­lar James Pat­ter­son, who by most counts is the most-read, most-sold au­thor in Amer­ica liv­ing to­day, uses the most clichés by a wide mar­gin, even com­pared to sim­i­lar au­thors. But ap­par­ently peo­ple love his writ­ing, so it’s hard to fault him.

Did you come out with a new idea about what makes a great writer?

What makes a great writer is def­i­nitely unique style. More concise, more di­rect, less fluff, that’s just the way that writ­ing is drift­ing to­day. Those types of books are more likely to be well­read and well-re­viewed. Sim­ple words can travel far.

You study a core group of well-re­garded and wellloved books. Did you let the com­puter read them or have you read them?

For the 50 au­thors I al­ways run stats on, and any au­thor I men­tion in the ac­tual text of the book, I read one book by each of those au­thors to make sure that my num­bers and my per­spec­tive were adding up. It’s cool to do that with au­thors like Kurt Von­negut. I’ve read ev­ery sin­gle book he’s ever writ­ten, but not re­ally thought about (his) writ­ing style di­rectly.

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