Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Data journalist Ben Blatt has used his quantitative approach to analyzing classic novels and 20th century best-sellers to test whether some of the common advice writers receive is reflected in successful books. (Yesterday, I reported some of his findings about differences in writing by and about men and women.)

Numerous authorities—most notably, Stephen King—advise against using –ly adverbs. King goes so far as to say the road to hell is paved with them. Instead, these authorities say, find a more robust verb that can carry your meaning on its own, unaided. Blatt’s example is, instead of “He ran quickly,” say, “He sprinted.” Saves words too.

As it turns out, Blatt’s research reveals that more accomplished writers do tend to rely on good strong verbs instead of adverbial modifiers. In a chart, he shows that Hemingway used 80 –ly adverbs per 10,000 words, where as E.L James (author of the 50 Shades books) used almost twice as many, 155 per 10,000. Here’s one of hers: “Mentally girding my loins, I head into the hotel.” A bit hard to visualize there.

Another precept Blatt tested was Elmore Leonard’s avoid-the-banal advice: “Never open a book with weather.” Yet best-seller Danielle Steele starts her books with weather about half the time (46 percent), and even Leonard has done it, maybe twice in 45 novels. By contrast, many literary authors (Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and others) never do so, across dozens of books.

Parlor Game

Here’s a parlor game for you, based on Blatt’s findings (his book has many more). What are the three favorite words of these authors? Can any of your erudite friends come close?

  • Jane Austen
  • Truman Capote
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • K. Rowling
  • Mark Twain

And here are the answers: JA (civility, fancying, imprudence); TC (clutter, zoo, geranium—bet you didn’t get that one!); EH (concierge, astern, cognac); JKR (wand, wizard, potion); and MT (hearted, shucks, satan).

You can order the books below (affiliate link):

Further Delight

While researching this article, I ran across this fun list of 100 Exquisite Adjectives.

Women (and Men) Just Don’t Do That (in Books)

whispering

Muttering and Murmuring – photo: Lexe-l, creative commons license

Excerpts from an entertaining new book by Ben Blatt, self-styled “data journalist,” are appearing all over the place. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve summarizes much fascinating research he’s done with a pile of literary classics and 20th century best sellers on one hand and a computer on the other.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) tackles the question of whether men and women characters in books behave differently. The short answer is “yes.”

Authors are more likely to use words like “grin” when speaking about male characters and more likely to use the tamped-down “smile” when referring to females. Men shout, and chuckle; women scream, shriek, and shiver. Sometimes a male character may scream (under extreme torture, I suppose), but he would never shriek! As IRL, men are more likely to murder. Female characters murmur; male ones mutter.

Blatt uses his database of novels to expose authors’ general writing patterns and writing trends over time. Based strictly on the numbers, here are some of his results, which I’ve culled from stories on Smithsonian.com and NPR:

  • Men and women authors write differently, with men much more likely to use clichés (Compare best-seller James Patterson—160 clichés per 100,000 words—to Jane Austen—45)
  • Well worth further exploration and perhaps years of psychoanalysis is the finding that male authors are more likely than females to write that a woman character “interrupted”
  • Ditto to the finding that male authors describe their female characters as kissing more often than their male characters (“she kissed him”), and for female authors, it’s the male characters who do the kissing (“he kissed her”).

Tomorrow:  Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

A Thin Gruel of Words

Do overused words run out of steam like a runner at the end of a marathon of meaning?  This Jonathon Sturgeon article from Flavorwire, lurking in my pile of “gems to re-read,” asks that question. It’s of renewed interest, in light of conflicting views on the robustness of the word “fact” and whether it means anything at all any more. A “fact” used to be something you could hang your hat on; now we’re all like Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

Humpty Dumpty

image: public domain

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master—that’s all.”

Sturgeon cites data on the use of four descriptive words with literary origins that have gone in and out of fashion over the decades: Quixotic and Byronic were used in the 1800s, with Quixotic peaking around the middle of that century and Byronic—a word I have never used—in the 1930s. In the 20th century, these two were joined by Orwellian—still the most popular—and Kafkaesque, both of which may be destined for increased use. (There’s no source cited for these data, so I can’t find out how they were compiled—probably by text analyzing software.)

Do words like these presuppose at least some passing knowledge of their origins? Presumably a person can understand that a quixotic effort is whimsical and doomed to failure or that an orwellian environment is “antiutopian” and “totalitarian,” as the dictionary would have it. Probably more people understand and use the word kafkaesque than have read—or want to read—The Trial. But do they lose their punch when applied too freely, as people believe the word “nazi” has, by being applied here, there, and everywhere?

Then Sturgeon asks a deeper question, one Humpty Dumpty would appreciate: “Do words mean what the dictionary says they mean, or do they gain meaning through the way we use them?” The answer, he says, is “both.” By using words where they only sort-of apply, their meaning expands, even to the point of meaninglessness.

“The idea that a word could lose its meaning because people use it is both funny and politically scary,” he says. “And so is the idea that a word could mean nothing at all.” I suppose the best way to guard against diluting the meaning of words must be our own vigilance in how we use them. Unless we want the word “fact” to mean just what the user chooses it to mean, we must guard it carefully.

***Between You and Me

Mary Norris, punctuationBy Mary Norris – This book—part history of language, part grammarians’ bible, part punctilious punctuation-snob puncturer—by a veteran New Yorker copy editor attempts to explain why writers in English, particularly those whose work appears in The New Yorker, make the choices they do. Form, not content, is her subject. While that publication is notoriously picky about copy matters, Norris’s anecdote-rich text suggests how much elasticity actually exists within its seemingly constricting rules.

Particularly entertaining are the early sections that include a review of her checkered, pre-New Yorker work experience. (You can’t really call a stint as a milk-truck driver and costume shop clerk a career for a person who did graduate work in English.)

Norris took her title from the common grammar mistake people make in using “I” when “me” is required. I yell at the radio when I hear the awful “between you and I” or “He invited Tom and I . . .” I suspect Norris does too.

Several chapters cover the ongoing punctuation wars. No surprise, as the subtitle of the book is Confessions of a Comma Queen. In the comma skirmish, I find I fight on the side of “playing by ear,” dropping in a comma where I sense a pause. And in hyphen disputes, her emphasis on clarity of meaning seems a useful approach. Thus the hyphen in milk-truck driver above.

Some of the text on verbs got away from me and her suggestion for how to tell whether a sentence needs “who” or “whom” (for the straggling soldiers in that lost battle), her system was overly complex or not explained clearly. I’ll stick with mine.

pencils

photo: Vladimer Shioshvili, creative commons license

The very best chapter was devoted to Norris’s love of pencils. Extra-soft No.1 pencils, in fact. The kind of pencil that has also kindled a love of pencil sharpeners. (I’ve served time in innumerable meeting rooms over the years and can tell you that The Ford Foundation’s black pencils, embossed with its name, and the round ones of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., which come in easter egg pastels, are the best. Whenever I attended meetings there, I stocked up.)

Reading anyone’s description of something they are both passionate and deeply knowledgeable about—making wine, say, or 1950s automobiles—is always interesting, and you learn as much about the person as about their particular interest. I don’t ever have to read about pencils again, but I’m glad I did.

Words That Make People Grumpy

fingernails, blackboard

photo (cropped): redpangolins, creative commons license

Every reader—writers, too—have certain words that sound to them like fingernails on a blackboard. I have a thing against “hopefully,” though that’s a losing battle. I don’t like alright—the phrase is “all right already”—and I’m not a fan of the singular “they.” Most times making the antecedent plural fixes it:

NOT: The patient should fill out their own forms.
BUT: Patients should fill out their own forms.

That is to say, if you find “his/her” and “s/he” and their spawn hopelessly awkward, I agree.

Rebecca Gowers in The Guardian has compiled “An A-Z of horrible words,” and I’m happy to find both alright and hopefully in it. On my own mental list of horribles, I can usually identify which grammar zealot burdened me with carrying their torch. Some examples: “under way” is two words, not one; don’t use “over” when you mean “more than”; “presently” means “soon,” not “at present”; use “whether” not “if” when “whether” is meant. And so many, many more.

Gowers’s article isn’t just another listsicle. She explains her prejudices, how the words came to be, and provides amusing sidelights (that would be a “compound”). The entry for “euphemisms” is especially enlightening.

Under “finally,” I discovered I ran afoul of this one just yesterday, using it to mean “at last,” rather than “for the last time.” Oops. Fingernails and a screeching blackboard for some irritated reader. Fixed.

Take a peek at Gowers’s list and tell me what Really Important pet word peeves of yours she overlooked!

Five Most-Read Posts of 2015

red pencil, grammar, comma

(photo: Martijn Nijenhuls, Creative Commons license)

Of the 208 posts I published on this website in 2015, these five had the largest readership:

#5 – Pump Up Your Vocabulary – Test the size of your vocabulary, and use these resources to rejuvenate the tired array of words we overuse. Awesome, no?! Plus a reminder of the importance of reading—fiction, especially—in building a rich vocabulary. With more words you can express more ideas, with greater precision and subtlety.

#4 – Fan Fic Fest – Lots of people over 30 are only dimly aware of this phenomenon. I wanted to know more, so audited a class devoted to it at Princeton. Wow. Takeaways: fan fiction (loosely: derivative works) has always existed; people write fan fiction for love of existing characters (Holmes & Watson; Spock and Kirk; Little Ponies), not money; it’s a tremendously diverse enterprise, though there is a strain of unexpected couplings and freewheeling sex; it’s decoupling works from the intents of their original creators and making them fractal, with derivative works on top of derivative works.

#3 – Best Reads of 2014 – Soon to be followed by Best Reads of 2015!

#2 – *****The Cowboy and the Cossack – this 2014 book review was near the top of the charts again in 2015. Generally rave reviews from everyone who’s read it, as well as from me.

#1 – Freelance Editing Services Booming – At a time when book lovers complain about the poor quality of editing in books today (and forget proofreading altogether), this article covered reports of a cottage industry in freelance editing services. Included are links to some reputable-seeming services and some “beware of” resources.

It’s Red Pen Time!

editing, red pen

(photo: Nic McPhee, creative commons license)

BookBub marketing expert Diana Urban has advice for writers—and that’s pretty much all of us, right?!—about words to excise in our prose. You have probably heard many times about the importance of some of these, but yet, when I read the drafts of new writers, not to mention people who should know better (like me!), they are persistent problems.

  • Avoid passive verbs—the classic example “Mistakes were made” illustrates the problem perfectly. Who made those mistakes? Passive constructions remove the “actor” from the “act.” “The keys were misplaced.” Yes, but who should be looking for them?! With the passive, you never know; responsibility diffuses in a miasma of vagueness.
  • In fact, avoid auxiliary verbs in general. “I was standing at the window, and I was gazing at the sheep” may have been an acceptable dozy writing style 150 years ago, but today’s readers want to get to the point: “I stood at the window and gazed at the sheep, including that black one.” (Hero of the rest of the story, no doubt.)
  • I once had to cut 40,000 words out of a 135,000-word manuscript and found having people simply go to the window and look at the sheep took a lot fewer words than saying they stood up first. Unless a character has problems standing, it isn’t necessary to have them stand, then go. Nor do they need to stand up, as Urban points out, or conversely, sit down. Sit.
  • Similarly, it isn’t usually necessary to say “I started to call the police,” “I began wondering whether . . .” As Nike would say, just do it! “I called the police”; “I wondered whether . . .” Only rarely do you need the pause created by “I started to call the police, but he pulled out a gun and pointed it at me, and I laid the phone gently on the desk.”
  • Intensifiers, like “very,” “really,” (really bad, that), when perhaps your prose would perk up with a jauntier verb. Either something’s bad or it isn’t. How much badder is very bad? Similarly, “totally, completely, absolutely, literally.” Careless writers include phrases like “completely destroyed.” Redundant. Totally.
  • Removing “just” or, in my case, “even” is a bit harder, but they are superfluous most of the time.

Urban’s list continues, including 43 words to jettison. And, she demonstrates a handy way to find these stumblers in your own writing. It’s hard to do, because some of them are so prevalent they slip under the radar. I do searches for them in my prose and find them in embarrassing profusion, so I’ve taught myself to recognize them.

Naturally, what is questionable in the narrative part of your work may be acceptable—and desirable—as part of dialog. People rarely speak as precisely as they write, and a character’s persona may appropriately employ certain verbal tics. What’s important is that the writer recognize them for what they are. Absolutely.

Pump Up Your Vocabulary

words

(photo art by Darwin Bell, Creative Commons license)

Stuck in a rut when you’re writing and want to find some fresh words for your ideas? Not sure where you stashed that dusty old thesaurus? If your vocabulary needs a bit of a boost, the Just English website has produced a gaggle of synonyms for the 96 words that are most commonly used in English. While the list doesn’t replace a thesaurus (online, I’m a fan of Visual Thesaurus), equally interesting is what those 96 words are.

Who would guess these most frequently used words would include crooked, idea, neat, and predicament? Some of the commonly used words cited include alternative slang definitions, which undoubtedly increase their usage, but Just English doesn’t provide synonyms for these.

Anger, angry, awful, bad, fear—they’re all there. A few more alternatives for “bad” than for “good,” but perhaps it means something positive that we have 27 alternatives for “beautiful,” and only 19 for “ugly.”

By age four, children know some 5,000 words in their native language, and children of age eight know 10,000 words. The average adult who is a native English speaker has a vocabulary of 20,000 to 35,000 words, and most adults learn about one new word a day until middle age. The New York Times is happy to help with that. A bit more challenging assortment can arrive in your email inbox from A.Word.A.Day.

Teens who read “lots” have about twice the vocabulary of those who read “not much”—more than 20,000 words, versus about 10,000. While reading builds vocabulary, and people who read “a lot” throughout the lifespan have a bigger array of words in their communications repertoire than do non-readers, what they read matters. On average, people who read fiction “a lot” have larger vocabularies than people who do not—even if they read a lot of non-fiction.

You can test the size of your vocabulary here. More than 5 million people have taken this test; I did, and my estimated vocab size is 37,000 words.

27 Maps about English & America

language tree

Ellis Island Language Tree (photo: Colin Howley, creative commons license)

The English language is rich and diverse—and so difficult to learn, especially the spelling—for reasons made amply clear by the first map in this fascinating series. The English language has grown root and branch from a wide diversity of linguistic traditions.

Moreover, English is full of idioms derived from all these different cultures. (A friend who is a native German-speaker wanted a book to read to improve his language skills, and I suggested The Big Sky, a 1947 novel about the American frontier by Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. B. Guthrie, Jr. It’s told in the plain language of the era and characters, and I thought it also might shed light on the formation of the American outlook, pre-1970 or so. Big mistake. Although the vocabulary was easy, the book was so shot full of idioms, phrases an American reader would understand at once, it was impossible for an outsider to parse.)

Back to the maps. Others of particular interest include #7, the accompanying text of which points out that the pronunciation of American English today is closer to 18th-century British English than what current British speakers use. The changes that occurred in British English in the 19th century led to the dropping of the “r” after vowels, which elegant Hollywood stars of the 1930s and 1940s would emulate (“Chahles, wheah did you pahk the cah?”) and other pseudo-elegances, leading inevitably to Singin’ in the Rain’s “I cahn’t, cahn’t, cahn’t.”

#13 is a map of Europe showing where English-speakers can most likely have a conversation in their native language. More than 95% of Britons can carry on such a conversation, as can 39% percent of people in France. Whether they will do so is a separate question, though the French I’ve encountered have shown great patience with my fumbling attempts at their language.

Don’t miss #22, which is a reprise of a video that made the rounds some months ago, a woman demonstrating 17 different British accents. First up is the “received pronunciation” that straddles differences across regions, akin to what we think of in the United States as newscaster-speak, or, more technically, as shown in map #24, “General Northern.”

“General Northern” has replaced a “truly astonishing” number and variety of language families present on the North American continent when European explorers arrived. Few of these American Indian languages survive today. This story also is graphically told on these two maps, accompanying Orin Hargraves’s Visual Thesaurus story on “The Continent of Lost Languages.”

Just Your Type

(photo: wikimedia.org)

(photo: wikimedia.org)

Curtis Newbold, “The Visual Communication Guy,” runs a website about topics in good design. He says “it’s as important for (people) to be literate in visual communication these days as it is to know the fundamentals of grammar.”

He’s created a nifty infographic, “18 Rules for Using Text” if you’re intrigued by graphic design, web design, and just generally making the stuff you print out look better. The graphic is also available from his store in poster form, in case you have a bare patch on your office wall.

I look at a lot of websites and can attest to the fact that these rules are violated often. And, while they aren’t rules in the sense of “never do this,” they are certainly rules-of-thumb. Red or yellow type on a black background? No, please. Going crazy with fonts? Amazing how many people still do this. A list like this is a good reminder of these most common mistakes–which are “mistakes” because they discourage readership. Something none of us want to do.

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)