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Mark Larson

Steven, this is awesome! I hadn't noticed this on Amazon until you pointed it out.

I'm sure there's got to be some correlation with sales here. I wonder what is median and range for something like the NYT bestsellers lists. Just as each author has their personal sweet spot, surely book buyers as a whole and within their niches have their own.

Beyond that, I'm curious about re-readability, which of course is tougher to measure. Though I got a few hours enjoyment the first time around, I don't think I'll ever go back to read a Godin or Gladwell book. Ever. But for books in the Johnson/Pinker/Hitchens/et al range and beyond, I'm nearly certain I will.

Jason Mittell

Another cool toy to play with on Amazon pages is the Concordance feature - it lists the most common words (aside from "the" "and" etc.) in tag cloud format. There's nothing quite like seeing a book you spent years writing boiled down to 100 key words, but it's an interesting interface into the text.

Michael Patrick Gibson

Interesting tool! Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Austen all write at about 18-20 words per sentence, with words usually around 1.5 syllables. But then I thought, what about Hemingway? Surely his terse style would yield a different outcome. And yet it didn't. After a cursory search, I find Hemingway's numbers are the same as these other writers.

So what's being lost in the aggregation of this data?

Tim Walker

Interesting stuff, Steven. To my baseball-addled mind, the short-sentence trick works just like a change-up for a pitcher: just when you think you've got him all figured out and can take him for granted, pow!, he changes the rhythm.

Re Michael's comment, "Surely his terse style would yield a different outcome." I once had a professor who walked our writing class through an analysis of Hemingway's sentence length. The surprising fact was that Hemingway *often* used sentences that were quite long -- above 50 words, even above 80 words. But they would still be in his terse style, as they would often be comprised of several short independent clauses joined by "and." It makes some intuitive sense when you remember the opening sentence of ~The Old Man and the Sea~, which includes three independent clauses in less than 30 words, but Hemingway used even bigger run-ons of sentencelets (?) in some of his earlier work.

Michael Patrick Gibson

I emend my Hemingway stat. The books I looked at were Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls. So to broaden the search, I went to his complete edition for short stories. (I figured since it collects from across his career, it'd be fairly representative.) On this, he's even terser than I thought:

Syllables per Word: 1.3
Words per Sentence: 10.3

Isabel Lugo

"you often hear people complain about the impenetrable jargon of critical theory, but it looks here like the sentence length is as least as much of a culprit."

This may be because people tend to read one sentence at a time. It seems natural to pause at the end of a sentence and think "what did that just say?", but not so natural to pause mid-sentence. So in text composed of long sentences, one is more likely to get lost -- a 50-word sentence is more likely to throw someone off the track than two 25-word sentences.

Rikard Linde

Great stuff Steven. Isn't this related to what you wrote in Interface Culture on Apple's V-Twin search tool? If I remember it correctly V-Twin picked words with more than six letters, or maybe seven, in all the documents on a computer. This enabled comparisons of documents and V-Twin could tell which ones were "related", the ones containing the same long words.

Eric H

I'm surprised that Hannah Arendt doesn't score higher. The Portable HA only hits 17% and 28.6, while her personal correspondence scored lower (12%, 16.8, though possibly mixed with others' writing). One should always keep Mark Twain in mind when reading anything written by someone with a Germanic background.

http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/twain.german.html

kharris

MPG,

One thing that is probably being lost in Hemingway's case is that he practiced two rather different styles. He was terse at times, but as Tim notes, he could also tease a sentence along when he wanted to. Hemingway was a more bi-modal writer than most. Another thing not lost not in aggregation but rather in translation is Tolstoy's and Dostoyevshy's syllable count. In the original, they may have very different syllable counts because of the nature of the language, or because of the style of the translator. The same may be true of sentence length.

Drew

If you want to test your own writing (without getting a book published and sold on Amazon), you can do it within Microsoft Word (2000 or later, I think).

1. Under the Tools menu, choose Options.
2. On the Spelling and Grammar tab, check the boxes toward the bottom for "Check Grammar" and "Show readability statistics".
3. Click OK.
4. Under Tools, choose "Check Spelling and Grammar".
5. Click through all of the grammar mistakes that Word found in your document.
6. When it is done checking your grammar, Word will display readability statistics. It includes Words Per Sentence, but not syllables per word (although it does contain the Flesch Reading Ease score and Flesch-Kincaid score, which are partially based on both of these metrics).

Max

There are also more "industrial strength" tools developed by computer linguists for this kind of thing:

http://portal.tapor.ca/portal/portal

Best, Max

Seth Godin

Hey, I won!

What do I get?

Tim Peter

So that's why more people read Seth's blog than mine! I used to just think he was smarter. ;-)

Ed (NextInstinct)

Perhaps this is why a Seth Godin read always feels 'fresh', and never labored. The thought of reading his books and blogs posts alike, never brings with it a hesitation that "this is going to be draining", or "written solely for the sake of writing".


RE Hemingway: This is where the stats can be misleading. Taking averages belies an author like Hemingway. While he may in fact have many long sentences, his 'voice' is clearly established by the short, redundant statements that often followed them.
This was his mastery; to SAY a lot in the lengthy sentences, capped by a brief repeat of the slice of the previous prose. Which was how and what he wanted the reader to remember from each page.

Now then, where's that book with the long title? Oh yes, The Dip.

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Joe Marier

Here's something a little scary: John Henry Cardinal Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine sits right on top of... one of Christopher Hitchens' books, at 17% complex words and 31.8 words per sentence.

No, it's not his book on atheism.

Joel D Canfield

Ooh; so nice to be reminded of this *before* I send my tome off to the printers . . . although perhaps I should just change my last name to something beginning with 'G'

I wonder how much web-style has affected this trend? I do know that my blog posts tend to be punchy; the stuff intended for dead-tree versions tend to be, well, less punchy.

David Locke

Back in the late 80's there was an application, Corporate Voice, that let you feed it writing samples, and it would tell you how close you were to those samples. It worked. Unfortuantely, the application was not a success in the market.

Levi

Short is good. Its almost hard to leave that sentence with so few words...

David Locke

Try Steinbeck. He is said to have experimented with his writing style.

Joe

Very interesting stuff, and a fantastic feature for Amazon to add - I'm sure they've been using it internally for ages.

The concordance thing is also interesting. I compared a few of Bill Bryson's travel books and the top 100 words are almost identical per book - I guess if you hit upon a winnnig formula then stick with it:

Book A: http://tinyurl.com/2n4zce
Book B: http://tinyurl.com/2obmb3

I wonder what further information could be gleaned from this. It certainly bodes well for the essays I currently have to write (my average words/sentence is 18.9).

Andrew Robinson

Thanks for the tip. I'm doing more and more writing, which I'm glad for. I appreciate as many "rails" as I can get to help guide the process.
I'll keep your post for future reference.

-Andrew

Leonardo Kuba

Pretty impressive study. If an author could match short sentences (aiming high sales books) and good content (to benefit the readers), then he/she would acomplish the perfect formula. Nice post.

Tara Jacobsen

I wonder how this translates to "hear-ability" as I really like Godin and Gladwell audiobooks when read by the author, but have a harder time reading them on the printed page.

Bryan

We just had a demo at work last week of a tech writing plug-in for our docs that checks sentence length, among other things. It flags any sentence longer than 26 words as too long to be fully comprehended by our audience (which may include non-English readers).
When we ran this on our existing docs, practically every 2nd sentence was too long by these standards.

dhamini

I'm just wondering what would the graph have looked like if you would have plotted Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak on it...

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