Archives For Literary

Your Writing Style

July 16, 2012 — 28 Comments

Each of us writes in a unique manner.

You can study writing patterns in various ways, by considering vocabulary, changes in sentence lengths, repeated phrases, and various other measurable elements.

Then there are more subjective aspects of our writing, but these too are recognizable. They would include tone and more abstract things like pacing.

When you add them all together, you arrive at an amorphous quality called the writer’s “voice.” And, as I said above, each of our “voices” are different.

It may be that we dabble in a variety of forms and genres. For example, in addition to these casual blog posts, I also write about theology and military ministry from a much more “professional” perspective. And, shockingly (to my own writing identity) I’ve recently received encouragement related to poetry with which I’ve been experimenting.

Even when we write in various literary forms, and they clearly differ from one another in their voice, the truth is that for each of these documents we develop a personal, inimitable voice.

Now, after emphasizing our literary uniqueness, I want to switch perspectives and consider that our various styles and voice resemble those of others. Occasionally, when reading someone’s work it strikes you as familiar. You may even recall the author that the work reminds you of. (I’m not referring to plagiarism, of course, although the internet has apparently made that particular plague even more common now than in the past.)

It would be vanity to claim that our own writing voice resembles that of no one else. Yes, some voices are so peculiar that they are clearly “rarities,” but others have shared even those odd personalities in the past. I suspect that’s even true for the senseless ramblings with which some self-styled “artists” assail the public. (Even insanities can resemble one another.)

In any case, if you ponder this subject it’s natural to wonder: who do I write like?

Today, through the amazing processing abilities of the computer, you may be able to get an answer to that very question. It’s not a definitive answer, because as I said above, our writing voice possesses both material (words and syntax) and spiritual (ephemeral and aesthetic) dimensions. And, while a computer may be without peer in comparing the former, I believe it to be quite deficient in discerning the latter.

Nevertheless, a rudimentary program is available online to compare your writing with that of a number of writers of varying reputation. The program has a number of limitations, but I think there may be something to it. It requires an extensive section of your writing (several paragraphs, at least). I assume more would be better, in terms of promoting accuracy.

As I just mentioned, it includes a limited number of authors currently entered into the database, and I suspect that the gifted C.S. Lewis is not among them. (I say this not because I expected to be aligned with him, but because of some of the included authors I am aware of. In addition, the program’s creator is actually Russian, so I would be curious to learn how the represented English authors were selected.)

It would limit the program’s value, for example, if I only input data on three writers and you were matched with the one you resembled most closely. Would you prefer, for example, to be told you write like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Georgette Heyer, or Fabius Planciades Fulgentius?

Even with a significant number of writers included, the program’s accuracy will be affected by the quantity (and specific choice) of what is included to represent each. For example, the programmer properly included Stephen King. How valuable would that be, however, if he had only used King’s poetry and excluded his prose works? (Yes, the horror master has also penned poetry—now, that’s a scary thought!)

Well, despite the limitations of the “I Write Like” program, it is fun to try out. And it sounds impressive, in that it relies upon a naive Bayesian classifier. (Well, the “naive” part doesn’t sound especially remarkable, but the formula looks pretty imposing to someone who never took calculus.

You can use take the “test” at this site.

Make sure you include lengthy selections from your work. Also, testing the program with different genres (assuming you write in different styles) will actually give you new matches. (That is, of course, as it should be.)

If you do decide to experiment with it, a comment below about your results would be interesting for others. And now, for the moment that you have been awaiting . . . with whose writing did the program match mine?

I tried a number of times (no—not fishing for results I wanted, but using a variety of types of my writing) and here were the repeated results:

For my blog posts: H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien

For my more formal essays: J.R.R. Tolkien or Jonathan Swift

(It’s Swift’s picture, you’ll note, that begins this post.) Actually, the majority of the results linked to Swift, whose work I don’t recall ever reading in full, not even Gulliver’s Travels. However, our shared emphasis on wit, advocacy and satire account for what I deem a genuinely accurate assessment. And it does not hurt that Swift was Anglo-Irish, like my favorite author!

So, until Dmitry Chestnykh adds C.S. Lewis to the writers included in the “classifier,” I’m quite content to rest on my matches. Because even if I don’t share Lovecraft’s worldview, I can still respect his literary skill. And being identified with the other gentlemen, is a grand compliment.

[Special thanks to Julie Catherine who introduced me to the site via her post on the subject.]

Literary Words

April 9, 2012 — 13 Comments

I must confess that I like words. In fact, it’s not excessive to say that I delight in brilliantly witty “turns of phrase” and elegantly painted landscapes that allow me to clearly see what the author is painting with his or her words.

I’ve grown convinced that loving words is a handicap to becoming an excellent writer. Yes, scribblers like me can become adequate or even appreciated writers . . . but to stand in the highest ranks a writer must be willing to ruthlessly slash and slay excess words that impede their perfect vision.

Self-editing is a discipline. It’s something that can be learned and refined through practice. That it forever remains a bit painful for some of us is clear evidence we are overly attached to the words we have put to paper.

C.S. Lewis addressed this general subject in a 1932 letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves. While he was not a slave to the number of words required, he aimed for simplicity and clarity. Lewis wrote:

I think I see, from your criticisms, that you like a much more correct, classical, and elaborate manner than I. I aim chiefly at being idiomatic and racy, basing myself on Malory, Bunyan, and Morris, tho’ without archaisms: and would usually prefer to use ten words, provided they are honest native words and idiomatically ordered, than one “literary word.” To put the thing in a nutshell you want “The man of whom I told you,” and I want “The man I told you of.”

I smiled as I typed Lewis’ remark about “ten words.” He used that to illustrate his willingness to use excessive verbiage to communicate clearly. Brevity was, however, an admirable goal. And brevity is a virtue I’ve seldom been accused of possessing.

In the military, comrades and associates are frequently presenting plaques and remembrances to those who are “rotating” to new assignments. Having served in a dozen different “permanent” assignments, I have boxes full of such memorabilia.

Two of the few I display are genuinely precious. The first is an icon of Saint Athanasius, presented to me by the best “boss” I ever had, an Orthodox priest by the name of John Stefero. The reasons for the personal gift were theological and I accepted it with genuine appreciation and humility.

The second prized gift is a gracefully curved etched glass keepsake featuring the seal of the United States Air Force Chaplain School where I served for three wonderful years. The commandant was speechless as he presented the plaque to me, reading for the first time the inscription that my closest companions had composed for me.

He says in a book what others say in a sentence.

The commandant (later our Chief of Chaplains) was stunned. I was delighted. I led the gathering’s laughter and bellowed, “Yes, and it’s a book well worth reading!”

Jack Lewis may have chided me a bit for the underlying reason for the accolade, but I am confident he would have delighted in the affectionate friendship and esprit de corps with which it was presented.

So much for my shortcomings. For all other writers (including, perhaps, you?) . . . I would recommend following the master’s example, rather than my own.