This article features the work of Dr. Kate Blackburn, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
What do women want from romance? Audiences have long been captivated by this question. Movies and books have tried to provide answers. Seriously, is the female mind such a mystery? There’s one book genre that might hold the answer. When the Romance Writers Association surveyed readers in 2017, they found 82% of romance book buyers identify as women, while only 18% identify as men. Romance novelists know they have an overwhelming female audience buying into their $1 billion industry. It is no surprise romance writers like Danielle Steel are some of the highest paid authors in the world.
In their 2018 study, “The Language of Romance: An Open Vocabulary Analysis of the Highest Rated Words Used in Romance Novels,” Kate Blackburn and her colleagues Omar Olivarez and Ryan Hardie studied 703 romance novels. They looked for words commonly used in the highest-rated books on Smashwords to unlock what readers liked best. The above list of 25 words were the most frequently used in romance bestsellers.
Blackburn, a researcher at the Pennebaker lab, studies how people use language to tell stories through language patterns. With her colleagues, she set out to discover how the success of romance novels reveal what women want in romantic relationships. “Not only has research demonstrated that language reveals information about romantic interest, but that the language used in romantic literature captures human, and specifically, women’s, love preferences,” Blackburn explains. Their results may not be surprising to women.
So what do women want in a romantic relationship according to their romance novel preferences? For one, consent. “Nod” was the second most popular word in Blackburn’s study. Nodding connotes agreement, encouragement, and approval. And romance readers find that sexy. Other words on the list pertain to arousal and sexual activities. Of course, the number one word on their list was “kiss,” used an average of 39 times in the highest-rated books.
The next time you pick up one of your favorite books you might want to consider what that book says about you. As Blackburn shares, “One of the things that I love about doing research is that natural language gives us answers about who we really are and what we feel.”