Monday, October 6, 2008

Stylometric Analysis of Mel's Writing

10:21:15 PM CDT
Feeling Quiet
Hearing Darn Bee Movie!

Stylometric Analysis of Mel's Writing

Comparing Apples to Kiwis

At least once a semester during my educational career, I am complimented on my writing capacities and asked where I obtained the skills and how I developed them. Although flattered by the compliments, I find myself stifling the corresponding Homer Simpson look that comes rushing to my face as I search for an answer – I haven’t a clue what to say, and I certainly don’t want to look like an idiot after they’ve so generously pruned the feathers of my pride. I try to mention one or two things about me that may contribute to the fact; I like to read, I like to learn about new things, I strive for the “white and nerdy” award of the year, but the fact is, I don’t know either. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a pent colon and a tetra colon, and most certainly couldn’t directly point them out in someone else’s work unless you first showed me what I was looking for.

Writing comes as naturally to me as riding a bike, but that sounds like a pompous thing to say – even in print. There’s just something about the way words flow through my mind’s eye; perhaps like a singer who knows they’ve hit a note off key, or a painter who knows to change his brush strokes to emphasize the focus of his piece. Each letter, each word, each sentence written, comes together to tell a story. The gift is the ability to do this well. The great is the ability to do it well andkeep you coming back for more. I don’t consider myself a “great writer”. Heck, don’t even consider myself a “very good” writer. I know there are areas in my ability that require improvement, and I hope that one day, with a little hard work and a lot of guidance from gifted teachers; I will honestly earn the flattery.

Asking me to compare my work to one of my favorite authors is like asking me to compare an apple to a kiwi. Both fruits are sweet to eat, but honestly, isn’t it easier to bite into an apple rather than cut into the furry meat of a kiwi? Exactly how many lunches have you packed a kiwi in? That’s the exact dilemma I found myself in during this project.

The Big Apple

There are many great writers I could have focused my work on; Hemmingway, and his ability to bring color and texture to life, Twain, and his ability to make a muddy river look like an adventure, or even Stowe, and her ability to show compassion to a world she’d never known, but I chose instead to focus on the one writer who not only held my hand through my rebellious teenage years, but also walks with me today and serves as my foundation for inspiration – Stephen King.

Now, I suppose I’m not the first student to ever profess my admiration for King’s work. Television and movies spun off his written works provide those with even the worse case of bibliophobia a taste of King’s talent, and consistent publications (from one who professes to be retired) keeps his fans lined up at the check-out counters of their local Barnes and Noble. There is a reason for his popularity – he’s darn good at what he does. From the minute you read the first page in any of his novels, immediately you find yourself addicted and wanting more. It’s not the gore, or the creature under the bed; it’s the storyteller. I get just as excited reading his work on writing.

The first time I “met” Stephen King, I was still in middle school – about the same age my oldest daughter is now, and a few years after Carrie was put into publication. I spent most of my summer months off school racking up flyer miles as a patron of my neighborhood library (who, to this day STILL remember me). Every few weeks the library would feature the work of an author, and when King’s turn to shine hit the display shelf; I decided to indulge my curiosity in an attempt to discover what the hoopla was about. Comically, the librarian asked me if my parents would approve of my reading choice (obviously a substitute librarian who had yet figured out why I spent so many hours hanging out there in the first place), and that only fueled my desire to read his work. I was seduced into the net and I haven’t hit the waters of ignorance since.

Few artists step into the arena of fame without paying a hefty admission; King is no exception. Long before Carrie was accepted by a publishing company, he paid his dues utilizing his college education by teaching English at a public school in Hampton, Maine. If the saying “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger” is true, than these dues have showed their worth. Every piece of work from King gives his readers another view into his personality, his experiences, and his education. Effortlessly, he sculpts these words into works of art that keep calling back his readers for more.

The Comparison

What I found exceptionally odd while doing this assignment is exactly how low his readability score was. Expecting to find that his written work fell within high school graduate level, I was taken aback to learn that he scored well below this mark. Using the SMOG method of analysis, King’s work fell into the 9.3 level; about the 3rd semester of ninth grade reading. My work fell into the 10.85 level; almost 11th grade reading level. At first, I assumed that the numbers were way off, until I remembered an article I had read in the local paper claiming that the average American could only read at an8th grade level. It would make perfect sense that an astute author would degrade his work in order to capture the attention of his audience.

Another statistic that drew my attention was the difference between King’s word/sentence ratios compared to mine. Analysis confirms that King uses fewer words in his sentences (20.98) than I (23.84); another tool the author may be utilizing to meet the needs of his readers – shorter sentences retain attention. In our age of fast paced technology, readers quickly lose interest in long paragraphs and wordy sentences containing verbiage seldom used in common American conversation. “Hit ‘em where it hurts” seems to come to mind in this thinking – make your point known as quickly as possible and move along.

A Second Opinion

These differences made me wonder about my writing skills compared to someone I hadn’t spent a lot of time in bed with. I began to wonder if the similarities in my writing skills compared to King’s were because he caused such an impact on my literate life. While surfing the net, I became attracted to a piece of work not published as an essay, rather as a transcription of a speech. Although, different as the comparison appeared on the outside (the piece was written to be spoken, while both King’s and my work was written to be read), I found more similarities between the chosen piece and my work, than I had with King. Reading and speaking bare striking similarities; both are intended for communication purposes, and both need to be done well in order to retain the audience’s attention. I felt the comparison was imperative to my quest of becoming a better writer.

The recent media coverage regarding Mormons has weighed heavy on my mind for the last few weeks. Who the heck were they and why the heck did they allow their children to marry much older men? I happened across a speech given by Mitt Romney entitled, “Faith in America”, that spoke about his beliefs as a Mormon and also about his potential candidacy for President and how his religion played a role in his actions. I actually found myself compelled to feel empathy for the man and agreeing with some of the statements he had to make; a task I believed that King himself could not accomplish.

Obviously larger in context compared to my writing or the excerpt from King’s Bag of Bones used for the analysis were, each of the pieces averaged almost identically in the syllables/word ratios; indicating a similar fluidity of verbiage style and patterning. The most surprising difference of all was Romney’s SMOG analysis; 11.85 (almost high school graduate level) compared to either mine or King’s. I suppose Romney’s quest for Presidential candidacy could bear some effect on this score – one would expect that a potential President would be intelligent enough to communicate on a college level.

Making the Change

If my inspiration is to emulate the works of King, I have to learn to make every word count. My focus needs to be on shorter paragraphs and wording while refining my verbiage to account for the difference. I believe another area I need to center on is the reader; paying more attention to the point, and coming to it in a consistent and effective manner.

King has once been quoted as saying that his talent lies not within the story he tells, but in his ability to lead readers to the darkest closets and convince them to open the door. From the very first paragraph, the reader develops a relationship with the characters that don’t often end with the closing of the novel’s back cover. King fosters these relationships by his descriptions of the players, the setting (oftentimes a small, non-existent town in Maine), and the history surrounding each one. It is truly an art; a seduction between the author and the reader that I desperately need to learn if I want to aspire to be as great as him.

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