A recent BBC article described a study by Sebastian Bernhardsson (2009) and colleagues, in which they examined how the number of unique words (appearing only once) in a text relates to how long the overall text is. While it should go without saying that a longer text is likely to have more unique words than a shorter text, the relationship between the number of such words and the length of the text turns out to differ by author. Bernhardsson and colleagues (2009) examined various works of different length by Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, and D. H. Lawrence. What they found was that each author produced a unique curve that could be seen as a sort of finger-print for that author. Moreover, this curve appeared consistent across works, and works of different lengths, leading the researchers to conclude that whenever writers create a work they are pulling from a hypothetical “meta-book,” that encompasses their style.
While it would be nice to see this work replicated, using a greater corpus of authors, the idea that a writer’s style can be quantified using relatively simple word-count techniques is not a new one. Jamie Pennebaker, for example, has demonstrated that language use is an individual difference that can be used to predict a wide variety of things, including health outcomes and personality (e.g., Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). That our style of writing reflects something innate to our self and being, in a very real way, probably comes as no surprise to those of us who write. It is comforting, however, that this is not mere intuition but a phenomenon profound enough in magnitude to be detected using relatively crude research methods. It would be interesting to examine how a person’s writing style changes, and how these changes might reflect changes in the individual as a result of personal growth or encounters with unfortunate happenstance.
Bernhardsson, S., Correa da Rocha, L. E., & Minnhagen, P. (2009). The meta book and size-dependent properties of written language. New Journal of Physics, 11, 123015. (Online journal)
Pennebaker, J. W., & Graybeal, A. (2001). Patterns of natural language use: Disclosure, Personality, and Social Integration. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 90-93.
Very interesting article! It would be interesting to study authors who write in multiple genres to find out of the fingerprint remains the same across stories calling for a different style.
Interesting question Carolyn. My guess is that the authors of this study would hypothesis that this is indeed the case: one's writing fingerprint is present no matter what one is writing. However, whether this bears out empirically remains to be seen.
"...leading the researchers to conclude that whenever writers create a work they are pulling from a hypothetical “meta-book,” that encompasses their style."
Interestingly enough, I find that while I have a relatively stable style of writing consistent across most genres or formats (except for some, including technical papers, instant messages, etc.) it often changes in response to the sort of material I read prior to writing.
For instance, this morning I woke up and read Samuel Johnson for 30 minutes. Then I proceeded to write a few emails, which all had to be edited several times for being too long-winded.
Drawing from cognitive science, I think this has a lot to do with the 'priming effect'. Reading a particular word, phrase, or author's voice activates certain pathways in the brain, which, in turn, influences the way in which our writing is styled.
This is indeed an interesting phenomenon, and one that I've encountered myself. It can be a useful tool, keeping in mind the ideal writer for a certain style (e.g., Hemingway for e-mails, for example). In many ways reading involves inhabiting the mind of the author, temporarily, and we can then "use" this mind in our own writing.
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