I’ve been fascinated with a book I received from my uncle in Texas. It’s called Nabakov’s Favorite Word is Mauve By Ben Blatt. It’s an analytical look at writers and writing. I’ve already looked at Blatt’s analysis of the use of adverbs and exclamation points as recommended by famous writers (Stephen King and Elmore Leonard respectively). It also looked at the use of analytics to predict the gender of the the author by the words used in the writing.
I’m fascinated by this book’s examination of how writers follow (or don’t follow) their own advice. This post will dig into that subject just a bit more. Some of these great writers are role models for many of us. We read their advice on improving our writing and follow it blindly or with some measure of scrutiny.
I was particularly interested in two questions that Blatt asks in his book:
Does the person giving advice actually follow their own advice?
Does anyone else who has succeeded follow this same advice?
We already know about Elmore Leonard’s rule about exclamation points. He said, “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose”. If that’s true, then Mr. Leonard should have only used 102 exclamation points over his body of work. Actually, he used 1,651 over his 3.4 million words of prose, 16 times what he recommended.
Another Leonard rule is around his obsession with avoiding the use of the word suddenly. This is a commonly used word in writing, but Leonard declared that it should never be used.
Early in his career, he definitely didn’t take this advice to heart. He averaged between 40 and 100 uses of the word in his first four works. At the point after he issued this advice, none of his books used the word suddenly up to the end of his career.
Another author, Chuck Palahniuk, has written an essay that speaks out against using thought verbs. These words are: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines and Desires.
Palahniuk lives by his own advice. His eight books after he wrote about thoughts verbs in a 2003 essay dropped to 45 thought verbs per 10,000 words. Prior to his essay, he averaged between 70 and 120.
Palahniuk’s rule regarding thought verbs is much more difficult than limiting exclamation points, avoiding suddenly or even adverbs. These thought verbs are common to the language and an author has to be much more creative to avoid their use.
Another tried and true book that has guided many an author is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. One of the pieces of advice from this book is to avoid using the word not. Does E.B. White, the co-author of this guide, follow his own advice in his books? Over three novels, White uses not at a rate of 75 over 10,000 words. This is in the top 7 of well known authors with the champion being James Joyce at a rate of 52 per 10,000 words. Ayn Rand is at the other end of the spectrum with an average of 151 uses of not per 10,000 words.
There are more tidbits about writing coming as I work my way through Blatt’s book. I hope you have enjoyed these thus far.