Tuesday, February 9

I Write Like...

I Write Like is a free tool to analyze writing excerpts. Users insert a few paragraphs into a box, and the tool assesses the text based on  word choice and style to determine which famous author's work the excerpt most resembles.

So I immediately tested a few graphs from my most recent novel, Allure of Deceit, a scene of two frightened children running away from home. The tool suggested that the text was similar to that of J.K. Rowling. Then I tried a different section, one on a main character reflecting on his age, and was advised the text resembled that of author Neil Gaiman.And then another section from the final climax - that was identified as similar to work by science fiction writer Harry Harrison. I tried yet another section, early in the book, a section describing a mother's curiosity about a son's death, and that was assigned Jane Austen.

The results were surprising and may suggest that my writing is inconsistent over the course of several hundred pages. But then again, perhaps not. I turned to an excerpt of Harry Potter & and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling and inserted her text - and lo and behold, that was assigned a badge from Kurt Vonnegut. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss was reported to be similar to work by James Joyce.

I came late to this little game and was relieved to discover that many other writers had tried the software and posted similar results on social media. "Obviously, I Write Like isn't an exact science," wrote Jake Coyle for HuffPost Books in 2011. "But simply the idea of an algorithm that can reveal traces of influence in writing has proven wildly popular."

The software, developed by Dmitry Chestnykh of Coding Robots, went online in 2010 and is largely based on keywords. Chestnykh explained in an email that the assessment tool is limited to 52 authors. He provided the list, and all are notable.

The length of text inserted into the tool matters. A partial excerpt of the speech by Sarah Palin endorsing Donald Trump as presidential candidate was described as similar to writings David Foster Wallace. The full text of her speech was assigned the badge of Rudyard Kipling.

There are no rankings that suggest an excerpt is immature or needs improvement. The tool accepts the world's most amateur works, including schoolwork by a second grader or comments on Yahoo, and all are compared to famous works and assigned a badge from one of the 52 famous authors.

And that is probably wise. Any assessment of writing, including I Write Like, is subjective. What matters is that we try to write and connect with others though our work. In Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment, Maja Wilson describes being "convinced that there is something fundamentally sacred about teaching writing - about helping another person to express and shape their humanity through language."

Writing offers a window into the thoughts of others - and as such, writing and tools that aid revision and fine-tuning should be also encouraged. Fortunately, the I Write Like tool does not store or use inserted text for purposes other than the quick assessment. 

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