112. Rules bestselling authors ignore

Writers are taught many rules by the greats. But should we believe them?

Stephen King adverbs

Avoid adverbs

Stephen King famously said “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” and urged writers to eliminate them. Three years ago, I wrote in defence of these much maligned parts of speech.

Now we have some objective analysis of the truth or otherwise of the dictum. Ben Blatt analysed the more than 300 novels that reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list since 2000 and the 100 most recent winners of literary awards. He compared these “professional” authors with a sample of 9,000 “amateurs” who had written novel-length fan fiction. The professionals used around 114 adverbs per 10,000 words, compared to 154 by the amateurs. So there is a correlation between fewer adverbs and literary success. As you can see from the graphic, I used 44 adverbs per 10,000 words in my current novel.

adverb use by category of writer

However, Stephen King seems to be wrong about eschewing adverbs, if you take him literally. He used an average of 105 across 51 books.

adverbs by author
Source: Ben Blatt


Never open with the weather

Another great writing dictum Blatt explores is Elmore Leonard’s “never open a book with the weather”.  The graphic below shows that Leonard did this 4% of the time across 45 novels.

weather in first sentence
Source: Ben Blatt

Keep it short and simple

Bestsellers today, according to Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers’s The Bestseller Code, use shorter sentences and simpler words. And it seems true that sentence length and complexity has gone down.

Sentences in Jane Austen’s 1811 Sense and Sensibility averaged 23.2 words and in Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities 17.7 words. They both require a reading age of 14-15 years.

By contrast, J.K. Rowling’s 1998 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with a reading age of 12-13 years, came in at 11.8 words. Stephanie Myers’s 2005 Twilight was a lightweight 9.6 words per sentence and demanded a reading age of 10-11 years.

While the complexity of language has gone down, the size of novels has gone up. In the era of mass publishing between 1850 and 1950 shorter novels arrived but they grew in size again after the advent of long-haul travel and the airport blockbuster.

10 thoughts on “112. Rules bestselling authors ignore

  1. Of course there are rules in writing, the basics of grammar and punctuation exist in all languages. What makes me smile about your post, Neil, is the additional rules of style, who decides?
    Why can’t we start with the cold frozen rain showers and have our character running and rushing quickly for shelter. Honestly those adverbs are redundant, since the verb rushing implies quickly.
    I therefore believe, the style is one of padding by the commercial writers, even though Ben calls them professionals. They are under contract to write a product for the publishing houses; that is the trade and industry world as I know it.
    What is the editor’s role in all this? All the writers listed have their work pass through an editorial process and house style in which case, is it the writer who puts in these extraneous words or not?
    You could argue that the name of the author sells regardless of the writing – although I would say it is the story that sells – some great stories don’t make the commercial grade because of their bad writing -that has nothing to do with adverbs, really.
    If you want to experience padding with adjectives and cliche after cliche I would recommend Peter James, I speed read the irrelevant chapters, (which makes me wonder, why do I bother reading his books).

    What I take from your post is a question, what is literary success?
    Is it both good writing and commercial success or a good story well told?
    Authors come and go, great stories live forever.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I imagine there are a few reasons why language usage in books is simpler and the sentences shorter. One of them may be that books are open to many more people now from a variety of different educational and other backgrounds while books were the realm of the highly educated and wealthy during the Victorian era. An interesting article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much. In fact, I’d say the second half of the nineteenth century began the great era (which lasted through to the middle of the twentieth century) of popular literature. There were pamphlets, serialised novels, penny dreadfuls, and the innovation of mass publishing that brought Penguin to fame


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