Monday, August 9, 2010

Advice is like Ass Holes.

I was goofing around on the internet the other night, hours after I really should have been asleep, when I stumbled upon an interesting site. The site- I Write Like – is a “statistical analysis tool” that allows you to input into its generator a personal writing sample, which is then “analyzed” and compared to a famous author.  No wonder they haven’t cured cancer - this has clearly taken precedence.

After a few minutes messing around, it was clear this was all a marketing scheme for some writing workshop, but initially I was very intrigued. The link to the website was under “Do you write like Kurt Vonnegut or Stephen King?” and it was impossible to resist such a query. (Never mind what I Google-searched to yield such a link.)

Obviously I was curious to find out which famous authors my writing style resembles, so I entered the first few paragraphs of my short story, On Interstate 35, Stuck, (available for your reading pleasure in the archives section) hit the analyze button and immediately, I Write Like informed me I write like Stephen King. 


In the interest of consistency, I insert the last few paragraphs of  Interstate 35 and find that in this part of the 800-word story, I write like Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code, a book which Stephen King famously hated. Oh, irony.

After a few more samples, I enter full messing-around mode. I write simply “suck it” into the analyzation-chamber, and I Write Like tells me that “suck it” is not a sufficient sample. So I elaborate and enter “Suck it, Mr. Magoo. You are not welcome here” and wallah! I write like Ray Bradbury. Don’t remember that line in Fahrenheit 451, but no matter.

The legitimacy of this whole operation now in question, I create a little test for the I Write Like.  I input the first line of Stephen King’s story 1408:

Mike Enslin was still in the revolving door when he saw Olin , the manager of the Hotel Dolphin, sitting in one of the overstuffed lobby chairs.

What I found was that for all the years Stephen King was under the impression he wrote like Stephen King, he was mistaken. He wrote like Vladimir Nabokov.  Perhaps it was the hotel setting which made I Write Like think of illicit, nubile love.

The site also features a “Prove-It” tab which enables you to link your results to your Facebook page and demonstrate that irrefutable technology has proven you do indeed write like JD Salinger.  I spent the rest of the night trying hopelessly to get I Write Like to tell me I write like Kurt Vonnegut, even blatantly plagiarizing Cat’s Cradle, but was unsuccessful.  Then, inspiration struck me, and I input:

Suck it, Mr. Magoo. You are not welcome here. So it Goes.

I Write Like analyzed this and told me I write like Ernest Hemingway. My name is Yon Yonson. I come from Wisconsin

All of this got me thinking about the craft of writing in general, and how - while this website is flawed – we all do write like somebody. And this brings me to the main point of this blog (Ha! Those 500 words you just read were merely the introduction! Suck it.)

I think the best way to become a better writer is to become a better reader. Constant, obsessive reading is just about the best writing class you could ever hope to take.

Here’s what I’m thinking.

We unconsciously emulate everything we are receiving. Spend enough time with anything: a person, a book, a musician, a movie, a fast-food restaurant (anything!) and it’s practically inevitable that you’ll start to copy certain things about their personality -their habits and quirks and humor and style - without even thinking about it.  I had a teammate back in my NCCC days, Dylan, whose quirky style of humor I found infectious, and after only a few weeks living with him, I found myself constantly employing his brand of confused-faces and wise-ass-bewilderment humor without even trying, it just happened, and it felt totally natural.

The same thing happens with writing. The writer’s style is going to mirror whoever they’ve been reading lately or whoever they read the most. If a dude has read nothing but Stephen King and then one day sits down to write a short story, it would almost assuredly resemble, if not outright replicate, the prose of King. There’s a good chance the dude’s story would be a moody, folksy character ensemble about a nefarious store, politician, car, or graveyard in rural Maine. It would just happen. But if this dude, let’s call him Fisher; if Fisher becomes a better reader and adds more authors to his daily reading regimen, when he sits down to write his next story it’s going to have the influences of the new authors, plus the still-strong influence of King, plus the singular perspective of Fisher himself (which is exclusively Fisher’s, unique to him in the world, which is what makes writing great) and what will emerge will be the amalgam, and now Fisher is a much better writer. It’s like magic. Fisher has added Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip Roth and David Foster Wallace to his reading list, and his new story is about a time-shifting alien growing up in post-war Jewish Newark and battling a prescription drug addiction. And his car is haunted. And that story could potentially be awesome.

The more you read, the more unique your reading list will be, thus the more interesting the mixture of influences in your writing style becomes. I really think it’s as simple as that. I could be wrong (I probably am wrong) but I know for sure that the more I read, the better these posts become, and no way that’s a coincidence.

Walk around New York and you’ll see those ubiquitous yellow newspaper stands with catalogs for writing classes, the front of the stand proclaiming: Learn How to Write! Inside you’ll find a few dozen suggestions on what to do with a few hundred dollars and 6 hours a week. They obviously don’t want you to know that a library card is free. 

I input this entire post into I Write Like.  I found like I write like Cory Doctorow, a Canadian Blogger and Science Fiction writer. Creepy.        


  1. This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and needs to be
    appreciated by everyone.

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  2. so who is the original writer? if everything is based off something before it - where does it start? im not knocking your theory, just curious. also, i noticed you did not mention any women writers. maybe someday youll read a j.k. rowling book and next thing you know, all your comedy will be based on wizards. that will by the day.

  3. Thank you, Mary!

    And Harry, you can be influenced by others and still be original. The point is the more influences you gather, the more original you become. As far as the originators...I don't know. Cave Painters?