Data Science Reveals Why the Best Business Writers Avoid Certain Words. Turns Out Bestselling Authors Do, Too

Consider two sentences, one with an adverb and the other an active verb:

  • “He closed the door firmly.”
  • “He slammed the door.”

If you’re Stephen King, you like the second and hate the first.

Because Stephen King hates adverbs.

“Adverbs,” King claims in his classic book On Writing, “like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … with adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.”

Makes sense. “Whispered” paints a more vivid picture than “spoke softly.” “Sprinted” reads better than “ran quickly.” Or “yelled” versus “hollered loudly.” (Besides: Is there aother way to holler?)

But does King follow his own advice? Yep.

According to statistical analysis conducted on thousands of books by Ben Blatt in his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, King’s books — along with long-time bestselling books by authors like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Tan, Dickens, and Austen — contain relatively few adverbs.

That didn’t just hold true for comparing certain authors to other authors; it also held true when comparing an individual author’s novels. Critics tend to rate an author’s books that use fewer adverbs per 10,000 words more highly than those by the same author that use more.

Granted, stripping all the adverbs from your writing won’t instantly make — or better yet, transform — you into an amazing writer, much less a bestselling author. 

But if avoiding words that unnecessarily (oops again) modify verbs and writing in a more direct manner is good enough for some of the best authors of all time, that should be good enough for the rest of us.

Better calls to action. Better landing pages. Better promotional emails. Better content marketing. Bettter emails to employees, colleagues, etc. Good writing hooks a reader’s attention and keeps it — because good writing gets things done.

What else did Blatt’s analysis uncover? 

  • The best opening sentences tend to be short. (One of my favorites: “The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.” Emily Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
  • Male authors tend to use a lot more cliches than female authors. (Clearly mean need to start working smarter and harder.) (Double oops.)
  • After a critically acclaimed first novel, 72 percent of authors publish a longer second book.

The last finding makes sense. If your first book is successful, that boosts your confidence. And your ego. People want to read what you write.

Which is also true for people in charge. You’re the boss. You set direction. You have the answers.

Your employees are eager to read whatever you have to say. 

If the reader can’t tell, right away, what you want — to make or communicate a decision, to take certain actions, to respond by a certain time, or to simply feel complimented and appreciated — then you failed.

Good writing makes a clear point. Good writing makes a meaningful point. 

Good writing gets things done.

The next time you write an email, think first about your goal: To educate, to instruct, to convince, to sell, to build a relationship, etc. (If you don’t want to accomplish something, there’s no reason to write.)

Determine exactly what you hope to accomplish; that drives everything.

Then stick to short sentences. Use action verbs instead of adverbs. Avoid cliches. When you finish a draft, try to cut it down by a third: The result will be more precise, more understandable, and more actionable for the reader.  As Mark Twain supposedly said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”

In short, don’t worry about being an artist. Be a technician.

Because results are all that matters. Whether an email, a report, a proposal… good writing is writing that gets things done. 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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