What do copy editors with time on their hands do for fun? Many have turned to a new website called "I Write Like." It purports to tell visitors which bestselling authors' work their prose most resembles.
Here's how it works: You visit the site and paste a sample of your prose into a box on the screen. You click on a button and the system goes to work.
After a few moments, it spits out a verdict, such as "I write like Ernest Hemingway" – or whichever of the 50 writers whose work is in the database the algorithm considers to be the best match with your own. (The above may be among the least Hemingwayesque sentences I have ever written, but then Ernest never had to contend with words like algorithm.)
His project hasn't attracted just copy editors. Many otherwise perfectly normal people have turned to "I Write Like." It works like the software that helps filter spam out of your e-mail. It's based on keywords, that is. So however crisp and declarative your sentences, if you write about, well, algorithms, you won't "write like" Hemingway.
But, as an Associated Press writer noted, the most telling signs of influence of one writer on another come from punctuation, rhythm, and structure.
Herman Melville turns out to be a match for Stephen King. So does Margaret Atwood. President Obama's June speech from the Oval Office matched up to David Foster Wallace. And the lyrics of Lady Gaga's hit song, "Alejandro," match up with – brace yourself – Shakespeare.
I have my own love-hate relationship with computerized helpers like this. But I can imagine that an algorithm that analyzes literary styles could help people improve their writing.
I may be taking all this way too seriously, however. At one level, the joke implicit in "I Write Like" is that, no, I don't write like Hemingway, and you don't either. We each of us have our own voice, our own style, our own ways of doing all kinds of things.
Over the years I've spent a lot of time out on the wide-open plaza outside the Monitor's offices. On this plaza it's possible to see people at a much greater distance away than usual on a city street. It struck me one day, as I saw someone I thought I knew moving toward me, how many people one recognizes by their characteristic gait and pace well before the specifics of height, weight, and coloring are apparent. Rhythm before content, in other words – there may be an analogy in that.
One of the drawbacks of Mr. Chestnykh's website is that it is based on such a small group of writers, and only three books from each of these. He promises to enter more books into his database as soon as he can. His goal, after all, is to help people improve their writing.
But even if "I Write Like" proves to be just a summer fad, it's provided some chuckles for us words nerds during the dog days. And it's reminded us, albeit indirectly, just how distinctive we all are.