The Secret to Writing a Bestselling Novel

What's up with the shocking finding that high readability correlates to less successful novels?

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #397


I love rules, and I believe that humans are wired to see patterns (even where patterns don't exist), so it's no surprise that I'm a sucker for headlines like this one that came out last week: Scientists Find the Secret to Writing a Bestselling Novel.

The researchers claim that their computer model can predict what novels will be successful with 84% accuracy. When that secret is tied to parts of speech, I'm even more intrigued.

And the Secrets Are . . .

Use Certain Parts of Speech. The Stony Brook researchers found that successful novels contained more prepositions, nouns, pronouns, determiners, and adjectives than less successful novels, and that "less successful books are characterized by a higher percentage of verbs, adverbs, and foreign words."

In the "Adventure" genre, they broke down verbs further: books with "thinking" or "quoting" verbs such as recognized, remembered, and said were more successful than books with more emotional, action-oriented verbs such as went, glare, shout, and jump. They noted that these part-of-speech markers suggest that successful novels tend to be written in a more journalistic style than less successful novels, which tend to have more "sentiment-laden words."

An author and writing teacher I like named David Farland wrote about the study and noted that books with lots of nouns and adjectives could be spending more time developing the setting—something he recommends that authors do to transport their readers into the book.

Novels with complex sentences did better than novels with simpler sentences.

Use Complex Sentence Structure. By looking at clauses instead of individual words, the researchers found that novels with lots of complex sentences and inverted sentences (the predicate comes before the subject: Past the river sat the treasure) were more successful than novels that relied on simpler sentences. This finding may contribute, in part, to their counterintuitive finding that novels with high readability scores were actually less successful.

Use First Person? In the "Adventure" category, self-referential words such as Ime, and my appeared more often in successful novels. Since most of the novels in their data set seem to predate the current trend of writing novels in first person, it makes me wonder what it all means. Were early authors who wrote in first person more likely to be successful and nobody noticed it before? 

But the Problems Are . . .


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.