The #Writing Craft: #Write Like A Best Selling #Author
Posted On March 31, 2016
In which I examine Pro-Writing Aid recommendations against the efforts of published best-sellers.
In the previous three articles in this series we’ve looked at the findings of a group of researchers at Stony Brook University that linked lexical density to a book’s success, at lexical density compared to writing rules and identified the two hundred most common words as parts of speech.
Now we’ll look at some slightly different elements in the word recipe toward building a great book.
Pro-Writing Aid is a text analysis and editing program that helps to identify weak spots your writing. It looks at a bunch of different factors. Today we’ll look at the Glue Index, number of sentences per paragraph, average words per paragraph, sentence length, and sentence variety. Pro-Writing Aid has very specific recommendations for most of these benchmarks.
Below is the comparison chart I put together for the authors I examined.
The three books I chose at random were best sellers Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, The Burning Room by Michael Connelly, and Gray Mountain by John Grisham. For hah hahs I threw in Kevin Hearne’s Shattered: The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Seven and part of Tolkien’s first chapter of Lord of the Rings. For the cherry on top, I measured how well the first thousand words of my book Forced Labor compared.
The Glue Index and the Forty Percent Rule
In their e-book Twenty Tips From Professional Writers, Pro-writing Aid tells us to watch our glue words, the two hundred most commonly used English words used. These glue words add little to the meaning of the sentence, but they do slow the pace of the book for the reader. Forty-percent of your words is the maximum you should allow in your writing.
This sounds great except that not a single best selling author adheres to this rule. The lowest glue index was Grisham with 45% while Tolkien topped the list at 49% percent. Since these authors are published by major publishing houses and gone through the editing process, we have to assume that the Forty Percent Rule probably applies more to academic writing and journalism than fiction.
So go ahead, sling around those glue words. Just don’t go over fifty percent, because no one does that.
Sentences In A Paragraph, Average Sentence Length, Sentence Variety
In their blog Pro-Writing Aid advises to have no more than five or six sentences in a paragraph and to avoid too many short paragraphs. Sentence length should be between eleven and eighteen words. They measure your sentence variety, with the higher the number the more varied your sentences are.
How did our authors do? The low was 2.9 sentences and the high was 4.3. So it looks like short paragraphs aren’t anathema to best-selling writers and their editors. Sentence length does fall within PRA’s parameters for sentence length, except for Connelly who is a touch short. However, words per paragraph seem to suffer for most of the authors. If you take eleven words times four sentences you get an average of forty-four words per paragraph. Here the writers bounce between thirty-one and fifty-four words per paragraph, so it looks that almost no one gets to six sentences per paragraph except in isolated instances.
Sentence variety is well above PRA recommendations. It’s nice to know our professionals can follow one recommendation.
And Finally Lexical Density
ProWriting Aid does not measure lexical density. However, since it was lexical density that sparked my examination of the, “how do best-selling authors measure up” idea, here is the chart on the lexical densities of these best selling authors.
Remember that the website Analyze My Writing says:
Fiction on average tends to score between 49% and 51%.
Except for Kevin Hearne (sorry Kevin) all the best-selling authors hit 49% to 51% or above in lexical density.
I still believe tools like Pro-Writing Aid are helpful. Following those guidelines will help you write cleaner prose. However, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to fix every point to their specifications. Best selling writers don’t write that strictly so you don’t need to either.
Will writing like a best selling author help you sell your next book? Maybe. Maybe not, but at least you have an inkling you are on the right track.
Image published under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user Nic McPhee