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3 Things Science Tells Us about Writing a Best-seller

by Marianne Stenger
Posted: October 23, 2015

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Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a simple formula you could follow to ensure that your upcoming novel would sell out? While it will never be quite as easy that, researchers from Stony Brook University in New York believe they’ve developed an algorithm that can predict whether or not a book will be successful.

Using a technique called statistical stylometry, they studied the use of words and grammar in a variety of books from classic literature to science fiction and discovered that their algorithm was able to accurately predict which books would become popular more than 80% of the time. So what sets wildly popular works of fiction apart from those that receive a lukewarm response? Here are three things the algorithm revealed.

1. Conjunctions and prepositions are good

Successful books made greater use of conjunctions such as ‘and,’ ‘but’ and ‘if’ to join sentences. The popular books also tended to contain more prepositions, which provide essential information to the reader such as where something took place, when it took place and other general information. Examples of prepositions include ‘under,’ ‘before’ and ‘without.’

2. Thinking verbs are better than action verbs’

For some reason, the successful books used more verbs that describe thought processes as opposed to actions or emotions. For example, successful books employed verbs like ‘recognised’ and ‘remembered,’ while less popular books contained more verbs like ‘wanted,’ ‘took,’ and ‘promised.’

The study’s authors suspect that it has something to do with showing rather than telling, as describing a person’s physical state can give readers more insight than a literal description would.

3. Clichés should be avoided at all costs

Another thing the less popular books had in common was that they relied heavily on clichéd or extreme words and phrases such as ‘very,’ ‘never’ and ‘absolutely.’ The takeaway is that good writing uses words sparingly, so words that are cliché or just take up space without adding value should either be swapped for a better word or removed altogether. If you need a little refresher about clichés, check out this post for examples of words you should eliminate from your writing.

Want to learn more about creating your very own best-seller? The Certificate in Writing a Best-seller from the Australian College of Journalism will help you refine your skills and also teach you the all-important business side of writing, from finding a publisher to copyright and royalties.


Marianne Stenger

Marianne is a London-based freelance Writer and Journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central.

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