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I Write Like erupts online, authors scratch heads

- Associated Press - Friday, July 16, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - For anyone who has ever thought Charles Dickens was lurking inside his or her prose, a new website claims it can find your inner author.

The recently launched I Write Like has one simple gimmick: You paste a few paragraphs that exemplify your writing, then click "analyze" and _ poof! _ you get a badge telling you that you write like Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway or Chuck Palahniuk.

The site's traffic has soared in recent days and its arrival has lit up the blogosphere. Gawker tried a transcript from one of the leaked Mel Gibson phone calls. The suggested author: Margaret Atwood.

The New Yorker found that an invitation to a birthday party was James Joycean. Many others were aghast to discover they wrote similarly to "The Da Vinci Code" scribe Dan Brown.

The New York Times tried putting in actual novels, such as "Moby-Dick." Herman Melville, it turns out, writes less like himself than King, according to I Write Like.

Atwood, herself, tried the site only to discover she also apparently writes like King. "Who knew?" she tweeted.

Obviously, I Write Like isn't an exact science. But simply the idea of an algorithm that can reveal traces of influence in writing has proven wildly popular.

Though the site might seem the idle dalliance of an English professor on summer break, it was created by Dmitry Chestnykh, a 27-year-old Russian software programmer currently living in Montenegro. Though he speaks English reasonably well, it's his second language.

"I wanted it to be an educational thing and also to help people write better," he said.

Chestnykh modeled the site on software for e-mail spam filters. This means that the site's text analysis is largely keyword based. Even if you write in short, declarative, Hemingwayesque sentences, its your word choice that may determine your comparison.

Most writers will tell you, though, that the most telling signs of influence come from punctuation, rhythm and structure. I Write Like does account for some elements of style by things such as number of words per sentence.

Chestnykh has uploaded works by about 50 authors _ three books for each, he said. That, too, explains some of its shortcomings. Melville, for example, isn't in the system.

But Chestnykh never expected the sudden success of the site and he plans to improve its accuracy by including more books and adding a probability percentage for each result. He hopes it can eventually be profitable.

"I think that people really like to know how they write, even if it's not accurate results," said Chestnykh. "Still it's fun for them."

It's easy to find a laugh. Obama's Oval Office speech in June? David Foster Wallace. Lady Gaga's lyrics to "Alejandro"? William Shakespeare.

Whatever the deficiencies of I Write Like, it does exude a love of writing and its many techniques. The site's blog updates with inspiring quotations from writers, and Chestnykh _ whose company, Coding Robots, is also working on blog editing and diary writing software _ shows a love of literature. He counts Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Agatha Christie among his favorites.

"I had a typewriter when I was 6 years old," he said. "But I'm not a published writer and I don't think I write very good."

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Online:

http://iwl.me/

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