Simple sentences spread ideas farther

Taking advantage of a new Amazon feature, Steven Johnson has done some interesting (but not surprising) research on the complexity of the work of a few writers:

two stats that I found totally fascinating were "Average Words Per Sentence" and "% Complex Words," the latter defined as words with three or more syllables -- words like "ameliorate", "protoplasm" or "motherf***er." I've always thought that sentence length is a hugely determining factor in a reader's perception of a given work's complexity, and I spent quite a bit of time in my twenties actively teaching myself to write shorter sentences. So this kind of material is fascinating to me, partially because it lets me see something statistically that I've thought a great deal about intuitively as a writer, and partially because I can compare my own stats to
other writers' and see how I fare. (Perhaps there's a literary Rotisserie league lurking somewhere on those Text Stats pages.)

So I spent a few hours last week plugging in the numbers for my books, as well as a few other authors that I assembled in an entirely unscientific fashion: Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker, Seth Godin, Christopher Hitchens -- and then, just to see how far I'd come, I threw in my intellectual (and, sadly, stylistic) heroes from my early twenties, the post-structuralist legends Michel Foucault and Frederic Jameson. I compiled stats for 3-4 books for each author, except Gladwell who has written two, and then plotted them on a scatter chart, with the y axis representing % complex words and the x axis representing words per sentence.

Number below are what Johnson found (click to enlarge):

Based on the popularity of authors (Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin), the conclusion appears that short, simple sentences sell more books, and spread ideas farther and faster.


Bilbo said...

This is very interesting, but not at all surprising, especially today. People have become conditioned to the "sound bite," the reduction of complex ideas to bumper-sticker slogans without attention being paid to the more nuanced context. Thinking is hard; getting a quick jolt of limited, focused information is easy. Hey...that sounds just like the message I try to drive home in my own blog!

Mike said...

I thought I'd help everyone out so they wouldn't have to look up the big words like I did in dictionary.com.

–verb (used with object), verb (used without object), -rat·ed, -rat·ing. to make or become better, more bearable, or more satisfactory; improve; meliorate.

–noun 1. Biology. (no longer in technical use) the colloidal and liquid substance of which cells are formed, excluding horny, chitinous, and other structural material; the cytoplasm and nucleus.

–noun Slang: Vulgar. 1. a mean, despicable, or vicious person.
2. anything considered to be despicable, frustrating, etc. (used as a general expression of contempt or anger).

Gina said...

Interesting....I went to a presentation/lecture by Dan Heath....he and his brother wrote a book called...Made To Stick...they investigated/studied why some things...like urban legends...spread through societies with no marketing....they discovered some things were "sticky"....and the qualities of stickiness include sentences/ideas that are simple, unexpected, concrete and credible..

I'm not sure...like biblo suggested...that we are all ruined and conditioned to by sound bites...maybe we all have a preference for sticky things which the sound bite is a perfect example of.....