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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Running Best-Sellers through an Online Writing Editor

Did you ever wonder what an online editing program would say about the work of a best-selling author?  Well, I have, and to satisfy my curiosity, I ran portions of three famous books through the Pro Writing Aid free online writing editor. The results of my experiment are described herein.

If you're asking "What's the point?" I wanted to see if there were any mechanical deficiencies in my writing that best-selling authors had mastered (i.e., too much passive text, too many pronouns, excessively long or short sentences, etc.). These are the types of analytic data an online editor can provide (among other information).

A secondary question was to see if the information provided by an online editor offered any insight on the marketable quality of the writing. I'm already convinced that there are enough features in a good online editor to make it worth my while to use in self-editing my text, so this wasn't an exercise to determine if there was value in using editing software, because for me, there is.

I also wanted to prioritize the myriad of report outputs provided by the editor.  For example, which 'red flags' deserve the most attention?  Which ones are less important for fiction (as opposed to non-fiction)?  Can any of these critique categories be safely ignored entirely?

In the table below, I summarize select portions of the Pro Writing Aid report that were easy to compare in a quantitative manner. The text I ran through the editor was selected from excerpts available online, each by different authors of famous speculative fiction series (ones involving dire wolves, a young assassin, and vampires, respectively).  I added a fourth column from a portion of my upcoming novel Mirrors & Mist (Book II of the Oxbow Kingdom Trilogy). For comparison purposes, each selection of text was approximately 2,000 words in length.

Disclaimers:  The table below is not the only information you receive in a free Pro Writing Aid report, it's only a portion of a full report. Furthermore, I do not advocate the use of these editors in lieu of (or as a replacement for) a human editor, rather as tools to polish your work before passing it on for review.

GRRM Hobb Rice CMS
Overused words 7 3 6 2
Redundancies 12 2 2 0
Passive index (target <25) 4.2 1.8 5.4 4.3
Pronoun % (Target 4-15%) 15 11.5 11.6 6.5
Initial pronoun % (Target <30%) 39.6 23.6 47.6 12.3
Sentence Length (target 11-18) 13.7 8.3 13.9 13.4
Sentence variety (target >3) 6.9 5.3 9.4 4.6
Long sentences 14 1 17 1
Vague & Abstract Words 71 36 46 26
Sticky sentences 10 21 17 3
Glue Index (target <40%) 44.7 48.4 49.3 36.7

So what did I learn from this exercise?  I learned several things, including:
  • Not surprisingly, best-selling authors keep passive text to a minimum, and use pronouns within the 'target' range (as determined by the online editor). However, the use of initial pronouns (first word in a sentence) can be well outside the target range without any apparent ill-effects to book sales.
  • The use of long sentences (>30 words) does not appear to be an indicator of success or quality; however, sentence variety and average sentence length does.
  • The 'vague and abstract words' report is not a good quantitative comparison tool for speculative fiction, due to the many fantasy words typical of the genre. 
  • Even among the best-selling authors, there is a wide range of results in many of the categories.
On a personal level, I've learned that the quantified portion of my writing style (as evaluated by the online editor) is not vastly different (or worse) than a best-selling author. However, I realize this says nothing about my story-telling abilities. This research also reminds me not to obsess over everything an online editor flags, because obviously, you can sell millions of books without getting a 'perfect' score. The one item that did jump out at me was my score for sentence variety--it was noticeably lower than the other authors and will be something I take a closer look at.

So there you have it--a glimpse into the strange things I ponder and the obsessive-compulsive exercises in futility that those thoughts inspire!

In regard to an update, I'm still plugging away on the 1st Draft of Mirrors & Mist. I'm currently editing Chapter 16 (of 18) and am at just under 72,000 words. I've also been making maps of my fantasy setting (using ProFantasy Software's Campaign Cartographer 3). Here's an example:


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