To the horror of readers everywhere, computer scientists have developed an algorithm they say can predict the commercial viability of a book, with an 84 percent success rate, based solely on the style in which the book is written.
According to the study, "Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels," by Stony Brook University's Vikas Gajingunte Ashok, Song Feng and Yejin Choi, whether or not a book will sell can be determined by several quantifiable factors that do not include the actual quality of the work. They write:
Based on novels over several different genres, we probe the predictive power of statistical stylometry in discriminating successful literary works, and identify characteristic stylistic elements that are more prominent in successful writings. Our study reports for the first time that statistical stylometry can be surprisingly effective in discriminating highly successful literature from less successful counterpart[s], achieving accuracy up to 84%.
To measure success, the researchers relied heavily on how often a book is downloaded from Project Gutenberg, which offers tens of thousands of free eBooks. Looking only at how each work's linguistic style was correlated to its level of success, the researchers reached a number of conclusions about which types of words boost — or hinder — book sales.
They looked at books in several genres including adventure, detective/mystery, fiction, historical fiction, romance and science fiction, and found that, generally, novels rich in prepositions, nouns, pronouns and adjectives sell better than tomes full of adverbs, verbs and interjections. So you'd be more likely to pay for this sentence:
The chair that was the subject of Adam's lecture was a beautiful chair.
than this one:
"What a chair!" yelped Adam - who was doing a nervous jig while wringing his hands - as he began to lecture.
Even though the latter is clearly a superior sentence.
Unfortunately, the authors found that classically 'good' writing doesn't mean commercial success:
Closer analyses lead to several new insights into characteristics of the writing style in successful literature, including findings that are contrary to the conventional wisdom with respect to good writing style and readability.
Most experts tell writer to use verbs (which appear on the "does not sell" list) in our writing because they guide us away from the dreaded passive voice — a practice best-seller buyers apparently don't care about.
Maybe the fact that good grammar doesn't sell explains why LOLcats used to be so popular, or why "Doge" exists. Or maybe we're just too smart for clear writing, as the authors postulate: "We conjecture that the conceptual complexity of highly successful literary work might require syntactic complexity that goes against readability." Judging by the complexity of that last sentence, we certainly hope so.
The researchers also determined that some specific words are more prevalent in successful novels. They look at words in adventure books as an example:
Less successful [adventure] books rely on verbs that are explicitly descriptive of actions and emotions (e.g., "wanted", "took", "promised", "cried", "cheered" etc.) while more successful books favor verbs that describe thought-processing (e.g., "recognized", "remembered"), and verbs that serve the purpose of quotes and reports (e.g. "say"). Also, more successful [adventure] books use discourse connectives and prepositions more frequently, while less successful books rely more on topical words that could be almost cliche, e.g. "love", typical locations, and involve more extreme (e.g., "breathless") and negative words (e.g., "risk").
At least we don't buy clichés.
Luckily for literary agents and book publishers, the algorithm isn't totally foolproof. It incorrectly predicted the fate of some classics, like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea — which the program thought would fail. So cheer up, young writers. Just because your unpublished masterwork is a clearly-written, action-word-packed bildungsroman about a young man coming to terms with his Tourette Syndrome, doesn't mean you should give up on a lucrative literary career just yet.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.