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).

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Further Delight

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

Life of Crime

John Hawkes & Jennifer Anniston, Life of Crime

John Hawkes & Jennifer Anniston, Life of Crime

Netflixed this 2014 comedy (trailer), which slipped into and out of theaters this fall faster than a rumor. It’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel, The Switch. Directed by Daniel Schechter, it features Jennifer Aniston (Mickey), Mos Def (Ordell), John Hawkes (Louis), and a strong supporting cast. (Several characters, including the two male leads were revisited in Quentin Tarantino’s considerably more violent Jackie Brown, based on another Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch.)

Much more The Ransom of Red Chief than Fargo, Life of Crime is about a kidnapping gone wrong. Louis and Ordell snatch trophy-wife Mickey only to find out her husband (Tim Robbins) is on the verge of divorcing her anyway. If they carry out their threats to kill her, they’ll save him millions in settlement costs.

Much of the humor comes from the bumbling characters who muddy the kidnappers’ scheme. They’ve sought the help of a Nazi-loving nut case (Mark Boone Junior) who has a spare room where they can stash Mickey, and she is pursued by a hapless and creepily smitten tennis club dad (Will Forte). The only sharp knife in the drawer is the husband’s new girlfriend (Isla Fisher), who’s just too smart for her own good. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 65 percent rating, with critics mostly objecting to low energy, lack of real menace, and perhaps the false expectation of Jackie Brown/Tarantino-style violence. Instead, the film is an “amiable diversion” with “ambling charm.”

(Trivia note: The title may have been changed from Leonard’s original because Aniston starred in a totally different comedy titled The Switch in 2010, and in an eruption of self-referential promotion, the DVD for Life of Crime included previews for both The Switch and Jackie Brown.)