Secret to writing a best-selling novel

Sounds like the name of some trashy writer’s guidebook, but here we are – scientists have apparently found the secret to writing a best-selling novel.

Using a method called statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar, computer scientists arrived at an algorithm that is “surprisingly effective” at determining how popular a book would be. The range of factors that can have an impact include: novelty, style of writing, engaging storyline, and “interestingness”. (How one would evaluate that, I’m not sure – would zombies outrank suburban middle-age angst?)

The researchers downloaded classic literature from the Project Gutenberg archive, and also used more recent award-winning novels and low-ranking books on Amazon, spanning genres that range from science fiction to classic literature and even poetry.

So what is the secret to a bestseller?

They found several trends that were often found in successful books, including heavy use of conjunctions such as “and” and “but” and large numbers of nouns and adjectives.

Not the most helpful advice thus far.

Less successful work tended to include more verbs and adverbs and relied on words that explicitly describe actions and emotions such as “wanted”, “took” or “promised”, while more successful books favoured verbs that describe thought processes such as “recognised” or “remembered”.

Of course, this begs the question – what is “successful literature”? Would we say Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is a bigger “success” than, say, The Hunger Games? Not that I have a empirical basis for saying this, other than a hunch than The Hunger Games seems more of an action-packed story full of wanting and taking, and To The Lighthouse, more of a literary tale revolving around recognizing and remembering. I imagine The Hunger Games would have sold more copies. Critical success, or commercial success?

The bad news is, this really isn’t much of a secret or a guide to success. But that’s the good news too – writers like torturing themselves so.

Procrastinate on your writing by reading the research paper here.


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