Friday, August 22

Descriptivism and Word Lists

Descriptivism and Word Lists

In the next few weeks and months, in addition to looking at the abstract principles of writing I want to spend time examining actual writing. I want to dissect various novels in an effort to understand how they’ve been put together as well as what makes them work. 

“Very” is a four letter word

A few days ago I came across this article from “8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing.” It’s a good list. I agree with Mark Twain that the word “very” should be used sparingly, if at all, and there are other words and phrases (“it’s a fact that”) which don’t add meaning to sentences. The more unnecessary words a sentence has, the more difficult it is to read.

But one of the lists I came across included “you” as a problem word. Another listed “as.” Yet another advised writers to eschew “fierce” in favor of “ferocious.” 

Everyone has their own opinions on these things, and that’s as it should be—it would be intensely boring if we agreed with each other about everything—but in my humble opinion advising writers not to use the word “you” is crazy!

Prescriptivists vs Descriptivists

In linguistics there’s a distinction between those who champion one way of speaking over another—prescriptivists—and those who objectively analyze and describe how a language is spoken—descriptivists.

I’m more of a descriptivist. In that spirit, I wanted to spend time looking at various kinds of books and examining how they’ve been put together. I would like to discover, as much as possible, what makes them great (or terrible).

To start with, I think it would be illuminating to take a look at the words most commonly used in various kinds of books. That way, if I’m writing (for example) a mystery story I could look up what words mystery writers tended to avoid as well as which ones they tended to use. 

Note that this exercise isn’t about finding words a writer should use or those they shouldn’t; that’s completely up to the writer. There are no right or wrong words, but I think information about relative word frequency could be interesting and helpful. 

I propose to divide books up into two broad categories:

A. Best selling books.

For my purposes I’m going to count any book that has made it onto a national best seller list. For example, the New York Times Best Sellers list. Also, any book that has had a rank of 100 or less in the (paid) Kindle store is a best seller. (These books would be further divided according to genre.)

B. Award winning literary books.

This list would include books that won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Man Booker Prize, the Edgar Awards, the National Book Awards, and so on.

I’m interested in what are the most commonly used words in books in each of these categories and subcategories. Further, I’m interested in whether particular words are unique to particular categories. However, since I do not have a lot of time to spend on this, I’ll initially limit myself to, say, 20 books in all. That is not going to be a representative sample (not even close!), but hopefully it will be enough to reveal an interesting pattern or two.

Weak Words

I’ve compiled a list of words I’m going to call “weak words.” These are words like “very” and “literally,” words that generally don’t add to the meaning of sentences and so serve only to bloat them, making them harder to read.

As a descriptivist it would seem to stand to reason that if there is a certain word every award winning literary book uses then beginning writers shouldn’t be encouraged to steer clear of it (for example, “you”). Similarly, if no literary book uses a certain word (for example, “very”)—or if only a smattering of them do—then it would be interesting to investigate further and see if there’s a reason for that.

I hope that when I’m finished with my investigation I’ll be able to publish an article entitled, “Top 10 Words Award-Winning Literary Writers Never Use.” (It would be interesting if there was a word that literary writers never used that best selling writers always did and vice versa.)

Although Stephen King generally isn’t regarded as a literary writer, I’m particularly interested in seeing the difference between the 100 most common words in Stephen Kings’ “Under The Dome” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.”

Beyond Words

While I’m at it, I also want to take a look at the first 300 words of a few novels—novels I’ve loved, novels I would have been thrilled to write. I expect it will turn out that many of these novels communicate a lot of information quickly and in such a way that it draws the reader in. 

Specifically, I want to ask the following questions:

1. What is the narrative point of view?

Is it first-person, second-person, third-person? Does the POV alternate between viewpoint characters?

2. If the POV is third-person then:

a. Is the narrator ensconced inside a character (the viewpoint character)?
b. If yes to (a) is the narrator the same entity as the viewpoint character or are they different. For example, does the narrator know things that the viewpoint character couldn’t.

3. Does the narrator float between viewpoint characters?

4. How many of the characters are introduced? What do we know about them from the descriptions given?

5. What are the character’s goals? What is their motivation for pursing their goals?

6. Has the writer set up a time-frame in which the character’s must obtain their goal? (I like to think of this as a ticking clock.)

 I believe it will turn out that most novels establish the answers to these questions in the first few paragraphs.

Short Stories

If this goes well, down the road I wouldn’t mind looking at the first 300 or so words of short stories and comparing the amount of information imparted there to the amount given at the beginnings of novels. It would be interesting to see just how much more information is crammed into the first few paragraphs of a short story.

That’s it! I missed a post this week so I’ll blog again on Saturday (tomorrow) and talk about my analysis of J.K. Rowling’s, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”


  1. A few days ago I came across this article from “8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing.”

    Your link goes to the home page at I found the site impossible to navigate to the article “8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing.” Fortunately, the site has a site search mechanism.

    Here is the direct link to the article:

    1. Sorry, that was confusing. If you had clicked on the title of the article the link would have taken you there. I also put in a link to litreactor's main site. Why? Because it's an awesome site!

  2. the bear in the back of that car is very creeptastic... ;)

    Great post.


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