A journalist uses statistics to uncover authors’ ‘cinnamon words’

Julia Franz at PRI:

IMG_5471Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing,” is a statistical analysis of famous books — and in it, Blatt uncovers some surprising facts about well-known writing.

For instance, did you know that the word “she” only appears once in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”? Or that James Patterson averages 160 clichés per 100,000 words in his best-selling Alex Cross detective novels?

The statistical study of literature isn’t just trivia worthy: As Blatt points out in the book’s introduction, two statisticians in the 1960s used word frequency and probability to pinpoint the authors of "The Federalist Papers," which had been a mystery since 1787. Blatt wanted to apply a similar analysis to a larger body of literature, to get a better understanding of how great books — and less-great ones — are constructed.

“One thing that made this book possible is that writers are consistent from book to book and really years and decades later,” he says. “It's not that in one book they write one way, in one book they write another way. There are some words and patterns and techniques that they use that are remarkably consistent over the course of their life.”

In the book, Blatt refers to these patterns as an author’s “stylistic fingerprint.” In one line of inquiry, he dusts for prints by calculating famous authors’ favorite words — the terms they use “at an extreme ratio” compared to other writers. He calls them “cinnamon words,” after an anecdote about the novelist Ray Bradbury.

More here. [Thanks to Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb.]