We’re back once more with the AutoCrit scalpel in hand, ready to get surgical and see just what’s going on under the hood of another best-selling novel – through the magic of our unique Standout Fiction Algorithm.
This dissection will put this entry’s chosen title under the microscope for two reasons:
- So that you can benefit from the curiosity-sating satisfaction of a sneaky insight into the block-by-block makeup of a hugely successful novel.
- So you can apply that knowledge as a frame of reference for your own work as you put it through its paces using AutoCrit.
We’ll show you exactly how AutoCrit reacts to our chosen novel – and the kinds of recommendations it makes for improving the text. Bear in mind that this is the full copy of the published book that’s being tested, so it’s by no means a first draft. As a book from a major publishing house, the work you’re about to see will, in fact, have already been professionally edited to within an inch of its life.
The question is: could it be improved?
And what kind of final score could one expect for a book that has already proven itself so worthy in the world of fiction?
Speaking of worlds… this episode’s pick takes us away from Earth and to a new world entirely. One where danger lurks at every turn – even in the air itself – but potatoes seem to get along just fine, given the right conditions…
You’ve probably guessed it just now, but yes – this time we’re taking on Andy Weir’s (inter)stellar success, The Martian!
So come on… what’s the score?
Summary Score and Fingerprint
Starting off on the default Fiction setting, the overall score for The Martian might seem quite alarming for those of you who strive to hit for the bleachers with your editing! As we discovered last time, though, a higher score doesn’t necessarily mean a lower quality of writing – it’s all about the finer points. The score of 78.65 isn’t far out from the low-80s average we do tend to see here for chart-topping novels, so the alarm bells aren’t ringing quite yet.
The fingerprint analysis is where we look to get information on AutoCrit’s recommended areas of greatest editing import. The higher the percentage, the more indicators there are in that section that could do with some brushing up.
For The Martian, it looks like Strong Writing, Word Choice, and Repetition are where most offending matter lies – so we’re going to need to take a good hard look at those. First, though, let’s hit Pacing & Momentum and Dialogue to see what’s so good over there.
Pacing and Momentum
First up: slow-paced paragraphs. Good stories tend to include a nice mix of fast and slow-paced sections. The AutoCrit system is capable of detecting just how many slow sections there are in your work, and will warn if things appear to be too much of a slog for readers.
Happily for Weir, The Martian comes home with a mere 4.76% of detected slow paragraphs – slightly lower than we saw in the already action-packed The Hunger Games. It isn’t hard to see that there are likely few to no problems in terms of pacing, here – as anyone who has read Weir’s novel can attest.
A core function of pacing is sentence and paragraph length, so we’ll check those out next.
Here we can see that a mere 41 sentences appear to be more than 30 words long – a staggeringly low 0.34% of the entire book. The vast majority of sentences don’t even breach 20 words. What can we tell from this? The book is likely a fast-paced affair, and often frantic in its action.
If we inspect the sentence variation in chart format, we can see that while the sentences generally contain a low number of words, the book still has that visual ‘rollercoaster’ appearance that we like to see – regular peaks and troughs instantly emerge. Where the larger spikes appear, it’s almost as if you can see the Act breaks – like sign-posted intermissions. Note how Weir manages the storytelling framework with a quick, exciting opening, before calming the reader down with a short, longer section and then speeding the action up again – so you have a spike close to the start, a spike at the end of Act One, another at the end of Act Two, and a smaller one in the finale as the reader is eased back out to the real world.
This chart can sometimes be confusing when you’re running through your editing pass, but really all you need to look out for are flat, block-like sections. You’ll want to take a closer look at those, but if your story rolls in ups and downs like you see here, chances are you’re in good shape.
A wealth of dialogue tags other than ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are often the bane of many an amateur novelist, but we can see that Weir most definitely does not fall within that umbrella. He does employ some alternatives, but the likes of ‘replied’ and ‘reported’ (the most common non-standard tags, here) are easy to accept in moderation, and used with such infrequency that, quite frankly, we’d give this report an instant pass when it comes to The Martian.
The tag ‘radioed’ is a little strange, so it might be worth taking a moment to pop into the editor and bring up the point where that one has been used – just to see if it’s employed correctly.
You may notice that even ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are marked as overused – but this is a function based on their frequency against the length of the text compared to the average of successful novels. Both the author and the editor would understand that this may be considered a dialogue-heavy book. If that’s the case for yours, too, then there’s nothing to worry about.
Similarly lacking in any real concern is Weir’s use of adverbs in his dialogue tags. We can see that ‘excitedly’ seems a little overused, even if it does only appear a total of three times. It could be worth checking that out to see if it’s weakening the text at any point – a quick little win.
Overall, though, the dialogue is looking good!
Now… let’s hit the problem areas…
Yes… the road to hell is paved with adverbs. But is The Martian heading down that path?
In the larger scheme, it doesn’t appear to be. Weir’s use is excellent; well below average – but when you drill down, there looks to be some room for improvement. The word ‘really’ is often a crutch – lacking in punch and serving only to bolster a weak word that would be better switched to a stronger one. Spending some time chasing that up in the editor could be a major win for Weir.
Of course, there’s a range of overused adverbs there, but it shouldn’t take too long to pop through and see whether they’re stinking up the prose, or forming part of character-defining speech patterns. The former can be fixed, while the latter is entirely up to the author’s final say.
Up next, Showing vs. Telling:
Whoa. It looks like we’re in the danger zone here… but pay close attention to the most frequent indicators. Given the marked items, it’s likely that these are only flagged in this particular manuscript due to being above average in use – something we also saw with The Hunger Games, and that’s common with first-person narratives. A certain amount of telling is indeed necessary there – more than you’d expect with a third person perspective. After all, much of The Martian is supposed to be the words of a person directly relaying their experience to you via logs, with their own (likely informal) pattern of speech.
The lack of more interactive words being highlighted here (for example ‘heard’ or ‘felt’) would be sufficient reason not to get too hung up on this particular report.
The next section, however, is definitely ripe for some pruning…
The number of filler words detected in The Martian is also hitting the red zone, and it’s little surprise to see that all-too-common packing peanut: the word ‘just.’ It’s almost certain that a nice chunk of those could be excised to no detriment of the manuscript. Note that ‘really’ pops up here once again – a reliable sign that it should be made an instant target for the editing shears. It’s a remarkably close result to The Hunger Games.
Moving beyond filler, we can see that clichés and redundancies are well within acceptable parameters – redundancies especially:
There could, of course, still be room for improvement, so let’s take a look at the cliché list within the editor itself.
Going out on a limb, we’d assume the liberal use (or perhaps overuse) of ‘okay’ is down to the narrator’s natural speech, but there may be some possible tweaks there – looking, for example, at instances where it repeats a little too close together for comfort. Terms like ‘in the air’ and ‘on the surface’ can likely be ignored given the setting and scientific references contained throughout The Martian, but these would certainly be worthy of further investigation.
Passive voice indicators come in just above average for The Martian, with far and away the most common being the use of ‘have.’ With large sections of the novel being something of a recollection of events, a certain amount of passivity is a given – and falling around the middle of the scale shows that Weir likely has good control over how he’s relaying his story. Had it been any higher, we’d have been worried that things were sliding into too much of a disconnected and uninvolving reminiscence.
Weir’s novel takes another hard hit when it comes to generic descriptions. We’re in the Martian red zone once again! Now, why is that?
Looks like way too much sprinkling of ‘good’ in there. That’s a *ahem* really weak word – and look at what it’s paired with in the results: ‘pretty,’ ‘big,’ ‘great,’ ‘nice.’ It almost looks like a laundry list of non-committal phrases: “Yeah, it’s pretty good. I’ve got a nice big dinner.”
When this kind of result shows up in your Generic Description report, it’s time to grab a coffee and get to work. Remember, though, that The Martian is a first-person narrative – and you might get away with this kind of thing within that framework as long as it doesn’t make your protagonist sound boring or vapid. The only way to tell is to get stuck in and edit, edit, edit.
Next in line for an inspection is repetition…
Okay – The Martian takes a bit of a pounding for this one. But you can see right off the bat that a lot of this repetition is likely necessary. We have words such as ‘rover,’ ‘hab,’ ‘sol,’ ‘suit,’ and ‘airlock’ – all scientific, and all relevant to what’s happening in the story. They’ve simply been used too frequently in comparison to most other fiction.
Usually, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem – but if we compare The Martian’s results to The Hunger Games, which also made regular use of terminology unique to its setting, the amount of repetition does seem high.
What do we do, then? We take a visit to the editor and pop these words into the Personal Words selection so we can get an easy visual overview!
Adding a few of these terms and tracking them in the editor, it wouldn’t take long to find where instances could be trimmed. Sure, some may be nit-picking, but we edit so that our words may be as refined as possible. Spending the time to run through each of these words individually (possible simply by ticking or un-ticking them in the sidebar) could pay dividends in the long run.
If it turns out that changes aren’t necessary, that’s also a positive – because we know this particular report isn’t anything to be concerned about. That’s the important thing: with AutoCrit, the author is completely in control, and free to make what they feel are the best judgments for their work given the raw, intimate data it serves up.
But there’s also something else we can do to see if this rather specific terminology is having a seriously negative effect on the overall score: we can exclude the words entirely from AutoCrit’s reporting. Let’s do that!
The result is a much better-looking repetition report, where we can see character names are among the top most commonly used words. ‘Suit’ – which had our attention earlier – is now right up there with the top frequencies. This would now make it a sure-fire target for some deep inspection:
But how does removing the specific words we targeted ultimately translate to The Martian‘s Summary Score? Let’s see.
Not a huge leap, right? It’s an interesting result, but primarily indicative that the structure that encases these words – the foundational build of The Martian‘s storytelling – is strong overall. It doesn’t unravel and leap around the scoring chart just because those words have been removed, something that’s a clear sign that they were indeed flagged because they’re generally uncommon in fiction. Still, without them the score went up. And that’s nice to see.
Repetition is also a concern when it comes to sentence starters. Starting off with a conjunction, for example, is perfectly fine – but use the same one too often in succession, and things are quickly going to get rocky. With 10.31% of sentences in The Martian beginning with such a starter, let’s take a look at them in detail.
Okay… ‘but’ most definitely leads the way here, yet taking a quick scroll through the manuscript, we don’t see many instances where highlighted words are clustered. Where they are, as you can see in the example screenshot with the word ‘if,’ it’s intentionally used for effect by Weir.
Again, here’s an example where some coffee and an editing session can see you both clean up your writing and achieve peace of mind. In the case of The Martian, our interrogation in this respect ends with a thumbs up.
Point of View Consistency
One of the newer functions of AutoCrit offers the ability to get a quick overview of your use of Point of View – a way to help you easily pinpoint places where you might be inadvertently head-hopping. Say, for example, a small cluster of first-person indicators followed by a small cluster of third-person, and then another small cluster of first-person.
These are color-coded for an easy overview, and given The Martian does jump between first- and third-person perspectives, let’s take a look at the readings.
Plenty of green tags can be seen here, which at a snap indicates this is a first-person passage. With a quick read we can tell that yes, it is. But scroll ahead a little and whoa… this seems like an abrupt shift to second-person:
With inspection, it turns out it isn’t. The narrator has begun merely to describe things at length, without referring to themselves. Phew! It reads fine – the thread of narration never being lost – so that’s a bullet dodged.
Further on, we come to an entirely blue section (pictured above). This should be third-person, and it is. It’s a quick chapter that’s sandwiched between two first-person ones, so it would be a good idea to check that the chapters surrounding those don’t also hop back and forth – something that can be a jarring experience for the reader.
This report won’t actually influence the overall score of the novel, but it’s handy to demonstrate it with something like The Martian. Even if you don’t go into great detail with this one in your own work, it’s always worth a quick skim through to ensure you’re nicely balancing your changing perspective.
Finally, let’s take a look at the summary score for the closest genre comparison for The Martian – Science Fiction and Fantasy.
The score bumps up ever so slightly in this mode – achieving a higher score than the Romance and Young Adult categories, yet level-pegging on Mystery/Suspense. That’s a solid sign of alignment with the goals of the novel, and perfectly fitting given the baseline score. If the highest upward trend is within your target genre, chances are you’re on to a winner.
And what if we check it with those exluded Personal Words we picked out earlier? The result is…
Not at all far from that average best-seller watermark of 80.
As a bonus, let’s check the readability stats for The Martian:
Dropping in with a Flesch Reading Ease score of 79, The Martian proves accessible at a 7th-grade level. It’s actually right on the border of 6th-grade ability – basic conversational English.
And yet, with the smash-hit success of The Martian and its subsequent translation to the silver screen, it may be with a slight sense of horror that you perceive a final score like the one you see above.
But what’s important isn’t only the overall score. It’s the nuts and bolts of the fingerprint analysis – the results of the careful, compartmental dissection that AutoCrit makes so readily accessible. Every book is different; every book stands to improve in its own unique way…
And every book has its own quirks that only you, as the author, can truly decide how to smooth into the overall landscape of the story.
So should you see a score like the one achieved for The Martian, don’t be dismayed. Utilize every report, and AutoCrit’s unparalleled flexibility, to confirm you’re as refined as can be for the needs of your tale. Don’t over-stress… because, as you can see right here, you might very well already be sitting on a potential blockbuster even if you haven’t broken through that 80-point threshold.
When you feel the job is done, enlist your human editor to tighten up the rest… and get ready for takeoff.