Archives For Voice

If you were to liken your personal writing to that of a famous author, who would you name? Are you similar to Emily Dickinson, or are you an echo of Charles Dickens?

Perhaps your words flow like Shakespeare’s or erupt in staccato, like Hemingway’s. If you are a member of a writing critique group – which I highly recommend – your friends may have offered their own suggestions about authors you resemble.

It just so happens there are a couple of tools that can offer hints as to the answer to this question. When I looked back at an earlier post on this subject, I was shocked to find I had written it all the way back in 2012. Yes, I know some of you were in grammar school then.

I shared then a site which was relatively new. The “I Write Like” site invites you to submit samples of your writing, which it compares to a range of famous authors. I am curious to try the process today, since the programmer continued to update it until 2016. Perhaps my results will be different than those from 2012.

Programs such as this are frankly quite limited. For those of you interested in the programmer who designed this one, you can check out an interview conducted when it was initially released. In the interview, Dmitry Chestnykh explains how his “algorithm is not a rocket science, and you can find it on every computer today. It’s a Bayesian classifier, which is widely used to fight spam on the Internet.”

My Own Results

I’m unsure how many authors our Russian friend has included in the comparison files. It does include historical and contemporary authors. I have no idea whether my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, found his way into the database or not. My results do reveal, however, that at least one of his fellow Inklings did make the cut.

Without further conversation, allow me to share the results from my experiment nearly a decade ago.

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.)

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

These were admirable results with which I have been happy to live. Thus, it is with some trepidation that I revisited the astonishing program today. And the results – For my blog posts: Arthur C. Clarke – For my more formal essays: Ditto.

Very interesting. Aside from the possibility that the program has been contaminated by some spaceborne virus, or intemperate Clarkean fans, I have to assume that Clarke may have been added after my initial venture into the unfathomable world of I Write Like.

In case any of you try out the program, I’d enjoy hearing your results – especially if they are someone other than a science fiction writer who died in 2008.

Another Way to Look at Writing Styles

There are a multitude of different elements involved in assessing a writer’s style – that which constitutes your “voice.” Vocabulary, sentence length, cadence, tone and a myriad of additional elements meld together in unique ways.

As David Downing’s fine article on C.S. Lewis’ advice to writers points out, the skilled writer considers how their words “sound.”

Lewis also believed that one should always write for the ear as well as for the eye. He recommended that a piece of prose be read aloud, to make sure that its sounds reinforce its sense.

Naturally, when we write for different audiences or purposes our voice can shift accordingly. That is why I fed the program selections from my blogs and my more considered essays. And, if they differ somewhat, you can imagine how distinctive my devotions are from my catechesis, or my fiction from my satire.

Speaking of satire, check out my recent report on Chinese Olympic results and the Uyghur people published last week in the Damascus Dropbear, a site similar to the Babylon Bee from the Land Down Under.

Back now to a second online program for assessing one’s writing. It can be found on a curious site called MySocialBrain. There you can participate in a variety of “research projects” that forfeit structured controls for broader access. The scientific benefit is obviously debatable, but the personal insights may well be beneficial.

One study entitled “Who do you write like?” compares the writing you submit with a number of famous authors. (As with “I Write Like,” your text is not retained on the system. Likewise, neither site requires that you enter your name or any other identifying information.)

This research project focuses narrowly on one dimension of stylometric study, a field explored in great depth in “Quantitative Patterns of Stylistic Influence in the Evolution of Literature,” available online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

MySocialBrain bases its study on a reasonable premise. “Despite the seemingly ineffable qualities of style, great progress has been made in measuring writing quantitatively. This process, known as stylometry, can identify the influence of one writer on another or reveal the author of unattributed work.”

You can have your writing compared to that of others at this site.

I used two different samples of my writing (blog, then essay) and came up with fairly similar results. I haven’t read much from every one of these authors, but my gut suggests there may be a valid correlation here. And that impression is reinforced by how little correlation my submission had with the writing of Beatrix Potter, R.M. Ballantyne and Baroness Orczy (of whom I had never heard).

If you have a few free minutes, and are curious about what this stylometry tool might conclude about your writing, give it a try.

The cartoon at the top of this column is used with the permission of its talented creator, Jonny Hawkins. He is both talented and prolific. Enjoy a humorous jaunt through his personal website today.

How One Speaks to Royalty

September 20, 2017 — 6 Comments


How does your voice subtly alter as you are introduced to foreign royalty? When you kneel before your sovereign, if you summon the courage to speak, does your voice crack, or assume the volume of a whisper.

A recent study argues that “Non-verbal behaviours, including voice characteristics during speech, are an important way to communicate social status.”

The research involved interviews with potential employers (most likely because too few individuals with royal blood were available).

We found that vocal modulations were apparent between responses to the neutral and high-status targets, with participants . . . increasing fundamental frequency.

That means that when people talked to those they considered more powerful or prestigious than themselves, their voices got higher and squeakier. [Note: the study itself does not refer explicitly to the squeakiness quotient.]

C.S. Lewis was a gifted orator, who could well have served as the prestigious participant in a study such as this. “Lewis had a rich, deep, booming voice,” notes a recent volume.

This may be one reason that Adolf Hitler rued Lewis’ contribution to the Allied war effort.

There are a bevy of studies related to how all manner of things exert a subconscious effect on our vocal pitch. For example, you may not be aware that “Japanese women modify their pitch when reading English sentences, producing speech in a slightly lower pitch range” (Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology).

Another fact of which you may be unaware, is that on the Supreme Court of the United States, “when male justices respond to female justices, they are more likely to raise their pitch.” What’s more, as the years pass, “female justices lower their voice pitch over time, whereas male justices raise their voice pitch over time.” What do we make of that?

In an article about how “study after study has suggested that low voices, ‘masculine’ voices, are an asset to those seeking leadership roles, in politics and beyond,” we discover how this relates to women, as well.

We perceive men with lower-pitched voices to be more attractive and physically stronger–and also more competent and more trustworthy—than their less burly-voiced peers. And we perceive women with lower-pitched voices along the same lines (though we also tend to perceive them, tellingly, as less attractive than their Betty Boop-y counterparts).

C.S. Lewis and the Idea of Voice

Accustomed as he was to an academic world constructed on the scaffolding of lecture and debate, Lewis was well acquainted with the power of “voice.” In fact, in one of his most creative essays, “Two Lectures,” Lewis describes hearing a predictable lecture on the subject of “evolution, development, the slow struggle upwards and onwards from crude and inchoate beginnings towards ever-increasing perfection . . .”

He then describes a “dream” that very night in which all of the lecturers presuppositions are reversed, raising the question of whether it might be “equally reasonable to look outside Nature for the real Originator of the natural order?”

The portion of the essay which is pertinent to the subject of the current column is the way he introduces the Dream Lecturer, but praising the “voice and figure” of its human precursor.

None of this [i.e. the evolution lecture], of course, was new to me or to anyone else in the audience. But it was put very well (much better than it appears in my reproduction) and the whole voice and figure of the lecturer were impressive. At least they must have impressed me, for otherwise I cannot account for the curious dream I had that night.

In “The Decline of Religion,” Lewis praises open and uninhibited conversations about faith. In contrast, he describes an earlier age of superficial religiosity in which Christianity, “if it had to be spoken of, it was spoken of in a hushed, medical voice.” Ah, the medical voice. We who have been around hospitals and sickbeds (for those seriously ill) are quite familiar with that somber and muted tone.

In “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Lewis illustrates the distinction between studying something and peering more deeply into it. His description of the voice of one’s beloved is quite poetic.

A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes’ casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. [Italics added.]

Reading these words, I am reminded of the Song of Solomon.

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. (2:14)

The Voice of C.S. Lewis

Fortunately, we possess a small number of recordings of Lewis’ voice. Sadly, however, many more were lost.

During WWII, the BBC used twelve-inch metal disks coated with acetate for recordings. But because metal was in short supply, those disks were primarily reserved for field recording, so only one of Lewis’s WWII talks was preserved.

If a sufficient number of recordings had survived, an analysis of Lewis’ voice pitch might have earned a modern graduate their PhD.

It is fitting to close these thoughts with a thoroughly Lewisian quotation. Lewis was a deeply charitable man. In his writings he mentions a number of times how he strove to put the best face on the words and actions of others.

In a letter to one of his regular correspondents who is extremely “distraught” at another’s behavior, he urges patience. In doing so he mentions how we can become so prejudiced toward others that their very voice becomes a bludgeon. But read on and see how he makes his gracious point.

It is a pity he ‘gets on your nerves’ but you are, rightly, controlling your reactions. I know well how a person’s very voice, looks, and mannerisms may grate on one! I always try to remember that mine probably do the same to him—and of course I never hear or see myself.

Your Writing Style

July 16, 2012 — 31 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.]