The Curious Question of Average Word Length

psychotick

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Hi Guys,

Strange question to start off the new year. Have any of you ever analyzed the average word length of your works? It's just something I've sort of been noticing lately in my recent writing. So I use Libre Office and it always gives me two figures down the bottom - the number of words in what I've written and the number of characters (including for some reason the first space after the end of a word but no others - not sure why.) Anyway I'm mostly averaging between five and a quarter and five and a half characters per word in my books. Don't know if that's long or short. Don't know if it's good or bad. Or even if there is a good or a bad. (Too many big juicy words versus overly simple writing perhaps?)

But just thought I'd ask. Anyone else ever looked at that? Have any thoughts?

Cheers, Greg.
 
Many moons ago, I was reading an article about this in regard to writing for a church audience and I believe that it said that if you average was much more than a 5 letters per word average that you were writing for a College educated audience, and that smaller words were more convincing.
 
Per the following, the average number of letters in English words is 4.7. I checked some of my own writing, also using Libre Office Writer, I I'm pretty consistent at 5.5 letters per word, but, as you noted, Libre Office also counts the space or punctuation following a word. This would put my word length at 4.5 letters, which seems consistent with the average word length.

Reference: The Average English Word Has Five Letters
 
I think word frequency is a better indicator. After all, "the" is the most common word in English, which skews the mean. With a frequency list (which can be had), I can throw out the noise words like "the" and "said" (for most novels) before getting down to the genuinely representative stuff.
 
Analyzing your writing in this way may be an interesting exercise and have some value, but in the end you need to develop a writing style that reads like an actual person wrote it, rather than a writing program (on the one hand) or a thesaurus (on the other).

Write the book you would like to read if someone else had written it. Don't try to dumb it down according to some formula, in order to please a wider readership, but also don't try to use longer words than you would ordinarily use, simply in order to impress people. Either way the writing would sound stilted and unnatural.
 
Legit never thought about this question, but looking at my WIP, 5.8/word (including spaces), 4.9/word without spaces. When i break it out by character POV, the numbers move around and range from 4.1 to 5.3 (without spaces).

Based on this single data point i now assume I'm stylistically amazing :ROFLMAO: /s
 
"Just for fun", I'm getting 4.64 characters per word...

...but in the past, I have used the readability statistics to highlight -- because it needs to be highlighted, as it's not otherwise obvious :rolleyes: -- where I've fallen into my tendency to write long (rambling**) sentences.


** - As seen in (too?) many of my posts on this site.
 
I must admit that I had ignored the number of characters info in LibreOffice, but dividing one by the other on my current WIP gives 5.7 (or 4.7 without the spaces - and now I'm trying to convince myself that the two numbers should roughly differ by 1 if there's notionally one space counted with every word).
I've no idea whether those words are any good, or in the right order.
 
I think word length is less important than readability and reading level. The higher the reading level (ie. grade 10+), the fewer people are likely to buy/read your book. Apparently most adults read at a grade 9 level, which surprised me quite a bit.

I'm at about 4.5 myself.
 
Apparently most adults read at a grade 9 level, which surprised me quite a bit.
Yes, I have heard that before. I think that has to do with vocabulary, mostly.

A four letter word that a reader finds unfamiliar is going to challenge them a lot more than a word like birthday (8 letters) or Christmas (9 letters).

Also, "most adults" don't read science fiction or fantasy, and I wonder if SFF readers might read at a somewhat higher grade level than the average reader. I don't say that they do, because I really don't know, but I think it possible that readers who like to stretch their minds and imaginations are perhaps a bit brighter and more educated (I'm not referring to formal education, though that will be true in many cases, but to self-education through the sort of books that happen to interest them.) Or at least they are familiar with words that readers who do most or all of their reading in other genres have no occasion to learn. (As those other genres may have their own vocabularies, too.)

So, if a writer wants to reach the kind of readers who read the kind of book they are trying to write, they might consider what would attract those specific readers rather than some nebulous typical reader.
 
>The higher the reading level (ie. grade 10+), the fewer people are likely to buy/read your book.
I've never bought that argument (or the books that put forward the argument).

First, and most obviously, in order to read enough to be put off by the supposedly too-difficult reading level, the reader would first have had to buy the book. It could mean they don't buy my *next* book, but it doesn't affect the initial sale. It's possible the reader looks at the sample and decides then. Or that they have gone to a physical bookstore and read enough pages to be baffled and frustrated. I wonder if this reading-level thing doesn't date from the bookstore days.

Anyway, reading levels are generally nonsense. Or, more precisely, they are derived from statistics, which is another way of saying the same thing. Naw, that's unfair to statistics, pace Mr Twain. It doesn't predict how any one reader will react. I suppose you could argue that you want to sell a million books and at those levels the statistical averages probably do matter. I can't really argue against that, but it doesn't seem relevant to most of us who are pleased when we sell a score of books in a month.

To put this in another, more positive light, write however you wish. The population of readers is large enough that there will be many readers who will find your reading level to be just right.
 
>The higher the reading level (ie. grade 10+), the fewer people are likely to buy/read your book.
I've never bought that argument (or the books that put forward the argument).

First, and most obviously, in order to read enough to be put off by the supposedly too-difficult reading level, the reader would first have had to buy the book. It could mean they don't buy my *next* book, but it doesn't affect the initial sale. It's possible the reader looks at the sample and decides then. Or that they have gone to a physical bookstore and read enough pages to be baffled and frustrated. I wonder if this reading-level thing doesn't date from the bookstore days.

Anyway, reading levels are generally nonsense. Or, more precisely, they are derived from statistics, which is another way of saying the same thing. Naw, that's unfair to statistics, pace Mr Twain. It doesn't predict how any one reader will react. I suppose you could argue that you want to sell a million books and at those levels the statistical averages probably do matter. I can't really argue against that, but it doesn't seem relevant to most of us who are pleased when we sell a score of books in a month.

To put this in another, more positive light, write however you wish. The population of readers is large enough that there will be many readers who will find your reading level to be just right.
I agree completely. But when I preach I have to consider my word choices pretty carefully. I do not preach to people who are mostly the same education level, nor should I try to teach only the people who find my complex word choices stimulating rather than intimidating. One of the my most frequent pieces of advice was "Dumb it down." Which I understood to mean that using what I would consider the perfect word would at least sometimes for some people make them lose the entire thought. As I believe that there are no people of more value than others and I was preaching to convince I tried hard to say what I needed to say simply and if I used the "$24 word," to be sure to define it as simply as possible.

Some years ago when I was the solo pastor of a church I did a series of sermons in which I tried to boil the essential thought of the sermon into two words which I wrote on a whiteboard. At the same time I was doing a sermon discussion class with some adult members of the church after worship. The sermon was well received and understood. But then I discovered that about 40% of the class had not understood one of the words* I had written on the whiteboard to summarize the sermon. And I didn't even consider the fact that the word might not be understood.

So I would say that if you are writing to entertain word choice might not be that important, but if you are writing to convince it is likely very critical.

*For the life of me I can't remember the word or find the sermons I did that with in my file. So my illustration lacks the punch it should have had.
 
I agree completely. But when I preach I have to consider my word choices pretty carefully. I do not preach to people who are mostly the same education level, nor should I try to teach only the people who find my complex word choices stimulating rather than intimidating. One of the my most frequent pieces of advice was "Dumb it down."
To me, this is at the core of knowing your audience, and in this context goes beyond how "big" the words are, but also on the way ideas are presented. Even "small and simple" words are going to fail to convey whatever you're trying to say if the way the ideas are presented is opaque. Clarity is a skill and a half.

(Personally, that skill is a work in (slow?) progress. It's not uncommon for the Biskitetta to make a note on my early drafts - this needs to be simplified.)
 
Clarity is very important. But avoiding the occasional word or wording that requires some effort by the audience contributes to the impoverishment of language. Balance needed here,
 

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