Saturday, July 24, 2010


I saw an article recently about a popular new Web site, "I Write Like." It offers to analyze samples of your writing and tell you what famous author you sound like.

I thought it sounded fun, and ran for some sample text from my work in progress.

My husband, on the other hand, snorted. "Type in some Charles Dickens and see what it says."

I did. I copied-and-pasted a couple of different sections from an online version of A Christmas Carol. It came up with James Joyce once, and Stephen King twice. But no Dickens.

Then I tried a few samples of my own work. Based on samples taken from the same chapter of my current book, it thinks I write like David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut ... or Stephen King.

I took a closer look at the article, by AP entertainment writer Jake Coyle. Turns out the site was set up by a Russian software programmer named Dmitry Chestnykh. English isn't his first language, and he created the program using three complete books by about 50 authors for comparison. (I'm not sure if Dickens made it or not.)

It sounds like Mr. Chestnykh worked pretty hard on it, poor guy, but there are obviously a few bugs in the system.

Here's the biggest bug: Computers can't read.

No matter how much programmers teach them about types of words, grammar and sentence structure, a computer can't tell what we mean.

In my critique group, we've had some fun lately looking at what Microsoft Word's analysis has to say about our writing. It rates our work in terms of grade level, what percentage of passive voice we use, and "readability." (We're still trying to figure out what "readability" means.)

I'm a big fan of sentence fragments, contractions and sentences that start with words like "but" and "so." So, of course, grammar check has a fit. And Microsoft said my last chapter was written just below the fourth grade level.


Of course, I'm no Hemingway, but with his legendary simplicity, I'm not so sure he'd get a higher grade than me. I can take comfort in that.

Here's my point. Computers are wonderful tools, but they're just that -- tools. They're made to serve us, not the other way around. They may be able to help us snuff out some of that pesky passive voice – but the darn fools would never notice if your character drove his car into the garbage instead of the garage.

You know what you mean better than any software program can, so don't rush to "up" your grade level just because a computer says so. And don't rush to channel your inner Stephen King just because a Web site says you sound more like Dan Brown. (You shouldn't be trying to sound like anyone else anyway. Right?)

Do what no computer can do. Read your work. Listen to your words. Decide if they say what you want them to say.

But for kicks and giggles, you can check out "I Write Like" here.