You Need to Know This
The Commingling of Data, Writing, and Publishing
If you’re a writer or a reader of nonfiction, you MUST get this book. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt is crammed with hundreds of fascinating facts worth sharing about writing and publishing.
Ben Blatt is a statistician and journalist who decided to use technology to test theorems of literature that have been bandied about for decades. He loaded millions of words and thousands and thousands of books into software that counted words and identified language patterns.
Here are five fascinating facts demonstrated by data analyzed by Ben Blatt in Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.
1) Adverbs DO directly impact the “quality” and success of a book
A direct correlation exists between the number of adverbs used in writing to the “quality” of the book, as demonstrated by a compilation of “great book” lists. More than 67% of books used less than 50 adverbs per 10,000 words.
Everyone talks about Ernest Hemingway’s low adverb rate. One author beats him, hands down, and she doesn’t get much mention when we talk about the sparse power of her work. Toni Morrison uses an average of 76 adverbs per 10,000 words. Hemingway uses 80 per 10,000.
2) It’s possible to write a book using only male pronouns
Think hard. Burrow into your brain to find books that are all male. Meander through your mind looking for evidence that it’s possible to write from an exclusively male or female viewpoint.
Based on Blatt’s findings on the use of male and female pronouns, these five books are almost exclusively male:
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. 100% “He” vs. “She.”
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. 100% “He” vs. “She.”
Lord of the Flies by William Golding. 99% “He” vs 1% “She.”
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. 97% “He” vs. 3% “She.”
Call of the Wild by Jack London. 95% “He” vs 5% “She.”
Ben Blatt was not able to find any books — even with his massive book compilations — that were exclusively female. The closest he got was
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. 79% “She” vs 21% “He.”
3) Clichés are not “the kiss of death” when writing books
Writers are taught to avoid cliches, to come up with fresh comparisons, to make the reader see what they see without using words that have never been used before.
Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, says
“I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead-on…Sometimes the ‘elephant in the room’ just captures the feeling you wish to describe.”
Hosseini was right. Clichés are used in the best writing, never completely eliminated from a writer’s vocabulary. Between 2000 and 2016, the Pulitzer Prize Winners’ median for clichés was 85 per 10,000 words.
Consider this. Most novels are about 90,000 words. The median number of clichés for an entire Pulitzer Prize-Winning book might be in the range of 700–800 clichés.
I wasn’t kidding when I said clichés are used in the “BEST” writing. The “bestsellers” indicate a definite predilection for clichés. The top ten bestselling books per year between 2000 and 2016 demonstrated a median rate of 118 clichés per 10,000 words, 40% higher than the Pulitzer Prize winners.
And get this:
James Patterson, the bestselling author of all time, uses MORE clichés than anyone else. He tops the list. His Alex Cross series, twenty-two books in total, boast 160 clichés per 100,000 words.
Of the most clichéd books of the 21st Century, Patterson has 5 of the top ten slots, followed by Janet Evanovich, Jan Karon, and Tom Clancy.
James Patterson, Cross Fire, 242 clichés per 100,000 words
James Patterson, Mary, Mary, 218 clichés per 100,000 words
Jan Karon, Light from Heaven, 218 clichés per 100,000 words
James Patterson, The Quickie, 215 clichés per 100,000 words
James Patterson, I, Alex Cross, 208 clichés per 100,000 words
Janet Evanovich, Fearless Fourteen, 206 clichés per 100,000 words
James Patterson, Kill Alex Cross, 204 clichés per 100,000 words
Janet Evanovich, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, 199 clichés per 100,000 words
Janet Evanovich, Plum Lovin’, 199 clichés per 100,000 words
Tom Clancy, Dead or Alive, 197 clichés per 100,000 words
Maybe the road to success is paved with clichés, after all.
4) The bigger the success of the author, the larger their name on the book cover
In Nabakov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, Ben Blatt looks at the covers to first editions of the number one slot on the New York Times bestseller list between 2005 and 2014.
The names of unknown writers are small in comparison to the title of the book.
If a writer becomes a BIG bestseller with five bestsellers to their credit, their name takes up 20% of the cover.
Blockbuster authors’ names are the focus of the cover, even if they have co-authors.
Check out the covers for Nora Robert. Her name takes up 37% of the space. Harlan Coben, 34%, J.D. Robb, 34%, Mary Higgins Clark, 32%, Patricia Cornwell, 28%….You get the idea.
5) Authors have distinctive “favorite” words evident in each book they write
It’s amazing what data can discover.
Ray Bradbury’s spices
Ray Bradbury declared that his favorite words were “ramshackle” and “cinnamon.” His childhood memories reading spice labels in his grandmother’s pantry made quite an impression.
Ben Blatt checked Bradbury’s assessment of his favorite words by analyzing the words of fifty authors, including Agatha Christie, J. K. Rowling, Jane Austen, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Bradbury uses the word “ramshackle” more than any other writer.
Only one writer topped his use of cinnamon. Toni Morrison used it more often.
Closer analysis of word choice by Bradbury shows that the spices in his grandmother’s pantry did make a lasting impression. Out of the works of 50 authors analyzed, Bradbury placed first, second, or third when using these pungent words:
Cinnamon — 2nd Spearmint — 1st Spice — 3rd Vanilla — 2nd Peppermint — 2nd Nutmeg — 1st Licorice — 1st Onion — 3rd Lemon — 1st
Favorite words of different authors:
Just for fun, here are few of an author’s favorite words determined by these criteria:
The word had to be in ALL of the author’s books.
It had to be used at a rate of at least 100 times per 100,000 words
It can’t be a proper noun
It had to be listed at least once per million in the Corpus of Historical American English
Mitch Albom — exhaled, hmmm, mumbled Jane Austen — civility, fancying, imprudence Truman Capote — geranium, icebox, drugstore Tom Clancy — briefed, sniper, gunmen George R. R. Martin — dragons, cloaks, whores
Did you know that Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, had a condition called synesthesia?
Synesthesia is described by Scientific American as
“… an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality. Synesthetes hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes. What makes synesthesia different from drug-induced hallucinations is that synesthetic sensations are highly consistent: for particular synesthetes, the note F is always a reddish shade of rust, a 3 is always pink or truck is always blue.”
Nabokov described it this way:
“…I present a fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English Alphabet…has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony.”
It should be no surprise then, that Blatt found that Vladimir Nabokov uses color FOUR TIMES more than any other writer. He uses color words 460 times per 100,000 words. In the Corpus of Historical American English, color words appear just 115 times per 100,000 words.
Now, it makes sense.
Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve.