January 24, 2011

What Makes a Best Seller? The Secret About Readability Statistics

What do these books have in common?
I can not take credit for this information. I am not obsessive enough--although I admire the discoveries obsessive behavior has led to in this world.

So here's the story and the secret. More than 10 years ago I went to a writing conference and heard a writer named James V. Smith talk. I guess I would classify his writing as military/sci-fi/fantasy. Not really my thing, but he had some cool things to say about writing. He lived in Montana where I guess he had a lot of time on his hands and so wanted to discover if there was anything best sellers had in common. By best sellers, I mean everything--from pulp romance (think Danielle Steel) to Pulitzer prize winners like Wallace Stegner. So he spent a good deal of time typing in entire chapters from these books into his word processor then running readability statistics on them.

He discovered, that every best-seller had similar readability stats. Readability stats are what sometimes pop up after you do a spelling and grammar check in Word (if not, click options in the spell check dialog box and then click show readability statistics). They look like this:

Of particular note was the characters per word count. He found that best sellers of any genre all had a characters/word count of less than 4.5. Most were less than 4.3 In fact, the lower it was--let's say 4.1, the better the seller.

Best-sellers also had a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 6th Grade or lower. That means that the text could be understood by a 6th grader. This doesn't mean the content would be interesting or appropriate for an 11-year-old, but a 6th grader could understand it and read it.

Reading ease is also interesting. Apparently a sentence's reading ease is inversely related (roughly) to how many words are in it. For example, a one word sentence would be understood by 99% of people. A 10-word sentence can be understood by 90% and so on. The software takes an average from your whole document. This is another reason to vary sentence lengths and make sure your long sentences don't have more than half of readers lost.

Of course, not much of this applies to academic writing--don't even dare run readability stats on your college thesis project-but for fiction and memoir, it's brilliant. I have to say that I have tried out James's little theory and after ten years, it is still by best trick in the book. Of all the pieces I have written and sold, the ones with a characters/word count of 4.1 sold the fastest. The ones above 4.3 have never sold.

So the secret to writing a best seller is really in revising. How do you do it?

I don't do it until I am totally done with the creative revisions and when I think it's ready to send out--because this type of revision uses a very analytical part of the mind and I don't want to introduce it in the creative part. But once I'm ready, I turn into a machine. Here's what I do.

First, I go through each paragraph and try to shorten it by a line. So if it ends with a little widow line of two words, it's not too hard to find a few words to cut out and shorten it. If it is a longer line, it becomes more challenging. A fun challenge. Sometimes I do it by shortening each line by a word and other times I see a whole sentence that doesn't need to be there. This helps my goal of shortening each page by a paragraph. Lastly, I go through and try to see if each word could be replaced by a shorter word that does the same or a better job.

It is literally like combing your hair one strand at a time. Some of you might find it a tedious process, but it can also be terribly fun. Try it out and let me know about your experience.

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