Monday, January 13, 2014

A Thousand Monkeys . . .

So, are we heading towards a world where an algorithm – a complex one – could write a book you’d want to read?


But we are in a world now where wonks are analyzing what good books have in common and are coming up with some interesting things, some things that line up with any random collection of writing tips you could pull out of your hat.

For example, here’s a study done by a group of computer scientists at Stony Brook University in New York. They admit they don’t know all – “external factors such as luck can also play a role,” writes Matthew Sparkes at the Guardian, concerning the study’s results. But there are some interesting things there for any writer to consider.

Less successful books, they discovered, “rely on verbs that are explicitly descriptive of actions or emotions . . . while more successful books favor verbs that describe thought processing and verbs that serve the purpose of quotes and reports.”

Let’s parse that a bit. Successful books appear as if they’re getting into the characters’ heads – the thought processing – and steer away from heavy-handed “quote and report” words like promised, cried, cheered (as in “’Hooray! We’re all alive,’ the crows cheered”.

Less successful books also relied more on negativity, more clichéd “topical words,” such as love, and more extreme words – breathless, never, vary, absolutely, perfectly. More successful books included more prepositions and more connective words – and, which, that, after, since, etc.

Here’s something else that’s interesting:

“The work of Douglas and Broussard reveals that informative writing (journalism) involved increased use of nouns, prepositions, determiners and coordinating conjunctions whereas imaginative writing (novels) involves more use of verbs and adverbs. Comparing their findings . . . we find that highly successful books tend to bear closer resemblance to informative articles.” So maybe that ten years in journalism will pay off after all.

Or not.  Because there’s that luck factor. And I’ve read some real stinkeroos produced by journalists.

Anyway, there’s a lot of things to swim through in the study (link to it from the Telegraph’s page). I don’t know what to make of it all. Hope I can figure it out before a computer does.

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