Monday, April 6, 2015

Predicting Success

Predicting Success

It may be a pie-in-the-sky dream but if there was a checklist that I could use to launch my book to the lofty status of best seller, I'd want that checklist posthaste.

Well, we've sent a man to the moon, we've broken the sound barrier and now we may have found the black box of such soaring literary icons as Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe and Hemingway.

The Department of Computer Science at Stoney Brook University in New York has found a way to predict the success of novels based on writing style. The method they used is called Statistical Stylometry and their findings were accurate about 84% of the time, which seems way better than a wing and a prayer.

Goal: To see if the success of a novel could be predicted based on elements of writing style and to identify what those elements were.

  • 800 books selected from the genres of Adventure, Mystery, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Love Stories, Sci-fi, Short Stories and Poetry.
  • selected on the basis of 2 conditions
    • they had already been published
    • they were written by previously unseen authors

First they differentiated between successful books and highly successful books. They then measured for style elements that were common for each.

What they found:
Predicting Success
There are elements that are typical to successful literature both within genres as well as across genres.

Less successful books were found to use:
  • cliches & common settings
  • more verbs and adverbs and verbs that describe emotions or actions
  • words that convey feelings
  • words that are considered negative or extreme
  • foreign words
  • simple sentence structure (which, ironically, should give them higher readability)

Highly successful books were found to use:
  • complex and/or inverted sentence structure
  • more nouns and adjectives, a characteristic which calls to journalistic writing
  • fewer verbs and adverbs and those related to thinking

The study then applied the same algorithms to some highly successful prize winning and national award winning books as well as movie scripts and the results were consistent.

So it appears that success doesn't always depend on “readability”.

I guess if I want to elevate my game, I not only have to draw my reader in, I've got to use effective nouns and unique locations, avoid adverbs, passive voice and cliches, and quit worrying so much about how many connectives I use.

in, and, but, which, since, that, what, whenever, where

Thinking Verbs:
remembered, recognized

Action/Emotional Verbs:
cried, cheered, shout, glare, jump

Cliches –
  • Negative words:
    • heavy, hard, prison, never
  • Extreme words:
    • never, absolutely, sacred, breathless, perfectly
  • Love related:
    • desires, affairs
  • Locations:
    • room, beach, avenue, door, boat, bay

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