The Secret to Writing a Bestselling Novel

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

Mignon Fogarty,
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 the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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