n most college-level literature courses, you find students dissecting small portions of literary classics: Shakespeare’s soliloquies, Joyce’s stream of consciousness and Hemingway’s staccato sentences. No doubt, there is so much that can be learned about a writer, his or her craft and a story’s meaning by this type of close reading.
But Ben Blatt makes a strong argument for another approach. By focusing on certain sentences and paragraphs, he posits in his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, readers are neglecting all of the other words, which, in an average-length novel amount to tens of thousands of data points.
The journalist and statistician created a database of the text from a smattering of 20th century classics and bestsellers to quantitatively answer a number of questions of interest. His analysis revealed some quirky patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed:
By the numbers, the best opening sentences to novels do tend to be short. Prolific author James Patterson averages 160 clichés per 100,000 words (that’s 115 more than the revered Jane Austen), and Vladimir Nabokov used the word mauve 44 times more often than the average writer in the past two centuries.
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You’ve taken a statistical approach to studying everything from Where’s Waldo to Seinfeld, fast food joints to pop songs. Can you explain your method, and why you do what you do?
I am a data journalist, and I look at things in pop culture and art. I really like looking at things quantitatively and unbiased that have a lot of information that people haven’t gone through. If you wanted to learn about what the typical person from the United States is like, it would be useful, but you wouldn’t just talk to one person, know everything about them and then assume that everything about people in the United States is the same. I think one thing with writing that kind of gets lost is that you can focus on one sentence by an author, especially in creative writing classes, or one passage, and you lose the bigger picture to see these general patterns and trends that writers are using over and over again, hundreds and maybe thousands of times in their own writing.
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What was the first question you wanted to ask about literary classics and bestsellers?
The first chapter in the book is on the advice of whether or not you should use –ly adverbs. This is also the first chapter I wrote chronologically. It’s mostly on Stephen King’s advice not to use –ly adverbs in his book On Writing, which for a lot of writers is the book on writing. But lots of other writers—Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk—and any creative writing class advises not to use an –ly adverb because it is an unnecessary word and a sign that you are not being concise. Instead of saying, “He quickly ran,” you can say, “He sprinted.”
So I wanted to know, is this actually true? If this is such good advice, you’d expect that the great authors actually do use it less. You’d expect that amateur writers are using it more than published authors. I just really wanted to know, stylistically, first if Stephen King followed his own advice, and then if it applies to all the other great and revered authors.
So, what did you find?
In fact, there is a trend that authors like Hemingway, Morrison and Steinbeck, their best books, the ones that are held up and have the most attention on them now, are the books with the fewest amount of –ly adverbs. Also, if you compare amateur fiction writing and online writing that’s unedited with bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners of recent times, there is a discrepancy, where less –ly adverbs are used by the published authors. I am not so one-sided that I think you can just take out the –ly adverbs from an okay book and it becomes a great book. That’s obviously not how it works. But there is something to the fact that writers who are writing in a very direct manner do produce books that overall live the longest.
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What stats did you compile manually? What was the most tedious?
There is one section where I look at opening sentences. Elmore Leonard, who was a very successful novelist, had said, “Never open a book with weather.” This is also advice found in a lot of writing guides. So I went through hundreds of authors to see how often they open their book on weather. For example, Danielle Steel, I believe 45 percent of her first sentences in books are about the weather. Many times it’s just “It was a magnificent day,” or “It was bright and sunny out,” things like that. For that, there was no way to do that automatically without having some error, so I would just go through all the book files and mark whether there was weather involved. You can say it was tedious, because it was a lot of data collected, but it was kind of fun to go through and read hundreds of opening sentences at once. There are other patterns that clearly emerge from authors over time.