How a Viral Program Made Me Think I Write Good

There’s a fun advertising Web site that’s been making the rounds in booky blog circles the last couple of weeks called I Write Like. Basically, you cut and paste some of your personal prose into the little box and hit the Analyze button, and the magic machine tells you which famous author your writing most resembles.

This is like catnip to me, so I put eight of my recent columns into the hopper and found that five times out of eight I wrote like the late David Foster Wallace, the novelist and writer of unforgettable essays such as “Consider the Lobster” and “Shipping Out.” That’s pretty much the highest praise I could imagine. The three other times I wrote like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Margaret Mitchell, which is also cool, because I’d like to be rich. Though, truth be told, I guess I wouldn’t like to be a dead, old Southern lady who got run over by a drunk driver, no matter how much money I had.

Anyway, the overwhelming consensus of the clearly brilliant analyzer was that I write like my favorite essayist, Wallace. I was feeling pretty good about myself. That is until I pasted the old Steve Martin nonsense line “May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?” into the box about 30 times. What great writer do you think it said I most resembled then? Wallace, again. Sigh. I guess my dream of penning the next Infinite Jest is out the window. Who am I kidding? I couldn’t even finish reading Infinite Jest. But for a minute there the analyzer had me by my ego, which is why this particular Trojan-horse ad works so well. For it is only after you’ve found out how great you are that the site offers up links to books and software.

I was intrigued enough to wonder what sort of brilliant mind thought up this game, so I contacted the creator via e-mail. It turns out he is a 27-year-old Russian living in Montenegro named Dmitry Chestnykh. (This is one of those moments when you realize the world is really a cool place, but you are old and boring.)

Chestnykh, the founder of a software-development company called Coding Robots, said that the algorithm behind I Write Like is called a Bayesian classifier. It’s the same algorithm that powers the antispam feature in e-mail programs. All of that means nothing to me, but even he confesses that his site is meant for fun, and it’s “definitely not a scientific breakthrough :-).”

No wonder he’s taken to sending smiley-face emoticons to inquiring journalists—originally he created the meme to help sell his writing software (a diary application for Mac and a Windows blog editor), and hoped to get a dozen or so links from bloggers. But it went viral instead and, according to Chestnykh, the site has had more than a million visitors since July 12, as well as 4.4 million page views. Readers, on average, spend more than four minutes on the site, an eternity in the short-attention-span world that is the Internet. More than 2 million snippets of prose have already been analyzed.

Proof that the site’s gone viral: there’s already a parody up called I Actually Write Like. When I put in excerpts from my recent columns, it said I was “someone about to go on a killing spree,” or a “lolcat.” If that weren’t bad enough, when I pasted in one of my favorite essays, it said I wrote like Dan Brown.

For what it’s worth, I also put this column in the real I Write Like and it says my literary doppelgänger is now Cory Doctorow. Not E. L. Doctorow of Ragtime fame, but the sci-fi writer and coauthor of the great blog I think I just got 10 percent more hip.

The whole thing got me to wondering if the machine thinks David Foster Wallace wrote like himself, so I plugged in his infamous graduation speech at Kenyon College. It turns out he also wrote like David Foster Wallace. Welcome to the club, DFW.

However, the real Margaret Atwood wrote on her Twitter feed that “According to the I Write Like analysis, I write like ... Ta da! Stephen King! Who knew?”

So even though it’s not perfect, you know that when the actual I Write Like writers are weighing in, you’ve hit on something. It’s the perfect advertisement for the gold-rush blogosphere, where everyone’s a writer, everybody’s an editor, and any two-bit hack in his underwear can imagine himself the next A. J. Liebling or Joseph Mitchell. Because when the writer wannabe spits in the blog ocean, he believes he can write, and this parlor game reinforces that belief. The ad is the modern-day equivalent of those “Draw me!” come-ons I saw as a kid reading comic books, where you could win an art scholarship if you could draw a cartoon turtle wearing a hat.

I would like to offer one piece of constructive criticism, however. After I go through the analyzer and it tells me I’m the second coming of David Foster Wallace, it says “Great job! Do you want to write better?” and includes a link for a book on writing. If you’ve just told me I write like Wallace, why on earth would I need a book about how to write? You should consider filling up the database with only little-known hack writers. You’ll move more product. Imagine how much money you’d make if people start seeing names like “Steve Tuttle” pop up on their computer screens.

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