Adjectives Drive Book Sales


Classic Books and AdjectivesWant to make your next book a best-seller? Use more adjectives. It seems to work for authors ranging from Mark Twain to Malcolm Gladwell. Data from a Purdue University study shows that use of descriptive adjectives correlates with higher book sales:

Can sensory-based description make books more accessible, memorable, and, ultimately, more successful? As a ?rst step at testing this hypothesis, we analyzed classic and current bestsellers for adjective use. Results indicated that popular writers use substantially more adjectives than peers who have written similar, though less successful, stories. [Emphasis added – from A Ridiculously Unbelievably Preposterous Conclusion: Use of Adjectives in Best-Selling Books]

The Purdue researchers contrasted the use in adjectives by successful and less successful authors, both in classics and modern books. For the classics, they counted the adjectives in the first hundred words of forty different novels by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Richard Jefferies, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. These authors were contemporaries, but the first two sold far more books.

The approach with the modern writers was a bit different – they compared a sample of random pages from both non-fiction and fiction books by contemporary authors.

In each case, the better-selling authors used more adjectives. The contemporary difference was smaller, but still significant.

Why Adjectives Work

Modern authorsThe authors of the study believe that adjectives that are sensory in nature are more impactful and memorable.

Of course, even if you buy their sampling technique, what makes books sell better doesn’t automatically translate into more persuasive ad copy or sales letters. Still, there’s evidence that adjectives boost restaurant sales when used on menus, and that sensory adjectives light up our brains even when used metaphorically.

The consistent factor in all of this is that adjectives can’t be bland filler – they should be vivid, sensory and specific. They should engage our imagination.

One last picky point – wouldn’t the study’s title, A Ridiculously Unbelievably Preposterous Conclusion: Use of Adjectives in Best-Selling Books, have been more compelling if the first part was reworded to turn the adverbs into adjectives (A Ridiculous, Unbelievable, Preposterous Conclusion…)?

  1. Paul Hassels Monning says

    Interesting insight, as your Brainfluence chapter 66 ‘adjectives that work’ describes in more detail. It seems to support neuroscientific proof for the value of storytelling. It would be interesting to ascertain the amount or frequency of adjectives used in the Princeton research referred to you in chapter 67 (your brain on stories) which revealed almost synchronous neural activity in pairs of subjects sharing a story.

    The use of adjectives to my mind should still be kept to a minimum when quickly trying the grab attention. Simple and succinct headlines remain key.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      All good points, Paul. I think the emergence of research on the positive side of adjectives is interesting because they tend to be maligned in most discussions of marketing copywriting. I would have liked to see a bigger sample of books and authors in the Purdue study, but the findings are at least suggestive of the value of properly used adjectives.


  2. koos kleven says

    It’d be funny to see someone use this on To Kill A Mockingbird, given the quote:

    “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”
    ? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

    Paul, nice link.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Ahhh, but do facts alone persuade, koos? Thanks for the quote, I didn’t know that one. I guess Atticus would be in the “adjective doubter” camp. 🙂


  3. madcom says

    I was looking forward to reading this (about adjectives) but on my browser i get a big white box in the way. Is that me or your site?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Hi, Madcom, I think you are seeing a rare bug in the Facebook share button. If you are surfing while logged in as a “page” on FB, they send out a long string of text that blows up the format. Still working on a solution. Sorry about the problem.


  4. Demian Farnworth says

    Why didn’t you use that ridiculous title? That was killer.

    I’m a missing something? How about good storytelling drives sales? Was that study some kind of joke?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      There was an even more ridiculous title than the one I used?? 😉

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