Big Data shows writers don’t always follow their own advice
Math meets fiction in Ben Blatt’s unique new offering
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.