f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Is This Math or Art: Talking About the Quantification of Writing

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Is This Math or Art: Talking About the Quantification of Writing

I got more than a few emails addressed to me in the wake of Alan’s post by readers of the blog who weren’t so sure about the metric of AWPS (Average Words Per Sentence). I don’t think Alan was equating the quality of writing with long sentences, but merely pointing out an observation that had occurred to him in reading books across genres and industries.

As a baseball nut, I’m powerfully aware of the importance of statistics. I’m also very aware of many people’s abhorrence of them. Baseball right now is in a period of great transition when a lot of common conceptions from over 100 years of the sport are being challenged by “nerds” who’ve come up with metrics that show pretty rigorous predictive value. It’s amazingly compelling to watch the revolution occur and yet spectacularly frivolous as well given that it’s a sport. (For a bestselling and layman’s treatment see Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.) Anyway, lots of people get frustrated when you start trying to quantify something that normally isn’t quantified, but we can’t just ignore the numbers.

The problem is we don’t have accurate numbers right now. Or at least I don’t. And, in the case of books, we need to be comparing apples to apples. Are CBA books always shorter? Doubtful. There’s tons of ABA books written each year. But, in acknowledging that a great number of our “adult” fiction titles are read by smart young girls with concerned mother who love the clean content, then it’s perhaps not out-of-line to wonder if there’s something to Alan’s rudimentary ponderings.

So, I’ll embark on a little experiment over the next weeks and months of tackling a handful of books a week. Trying to match apples with apples, oranges with other citrus. And we’ll see what we can learn.

The next thing we have to decide and the most common critique of AWPS is that it is meaningless. A long boring sentence does you no good. A short intriguing one does. It all goes back to diction and syntax—the words you choose and how you string them together.

I’m not sure I entirely buy that though. I think that’s the “old school” way of thinking. Obviously books are out to do different things, but I my guess (and this is all a guess right now) is that the more fulfilling and satisfying a book, the more the need for complexity of expression and thus the need for longer sentences. Will it bring us 100% correlation between quality and AWPS? No. Mostly because quality in books is far less quantifiable than quality of, say, second basemen. But if we’re all saying that the books that challenge us (CBA and ABA) are the ones with the complexity of thought that leads to longer sentences then maybe there’s a need to begin thinking through the issue a little more.

So that’s an entire MS Word page filled and I’m not sure I’ve even said anything.

I guess I’ll just say: “let’s see.” This may prove to be one fruitless goose chase. It won’t be my first time.

(BTW: here’s an odd little page about computer spellcheckers/grammar checkers and some of the options they offer. AWPS and AWL—word length—are often the two variable used in determining reading level. So I don’t think we’re completely off-base here. We just need to determine if there’s some magic level that separates “good” books from “bad” ones.)