Writing with Machine Reading

In working with Voyant Tools, I cannot help but reflect on how machine reading can also make us better (or maybe not better, but different) writers. To start exploring how I feel about writing in conjunction with reading, I want to start with my personal experience using Voyant, separate from class. My favorite book is Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and a large part of why I like Moby Dick is Melville’s prose. So naturally, after seeing Voyant run through and categorize Walden in most used words, average sentence length, and so on, I wanted to see the same of Moby Dick. It gave me the same data as Walden and I stared at the output blankly for some time, thinking of how this could be useful. As I was looking back on the Hayles reading, I came across this quote where she says, “On the other hand, machine reading may reveal patterns overlooked in close reading” (20). Close reading allows a deeper view of the thematic elements at play within whatever we are reading, but machine reading could allow us a deeper view in the inner workings of the sentences that construct the aesthetic patina. This is where I see real affordance in machine reading’s contribution towards our ability to write differently. I can analyze Moby Dick using Voyant, find the words that are used most, and begin to use those same words in my writing, effectively starting to build up the same aesthetic mood Melville is constructing.

However, there are limits to this kind of use. First, Voyant does not have the kind of capabilities (or I don’t know how to use the program to its fullest extent) to enact the kind of immersion that I want. I cannot see how sentences are structured in intricate detail, how many clauses there are, how sentence length varies i.e. if long sentences are generally followed by short ones or if short/long sentences are used only in specific contexts following specific words. Moreover, there is a limitation in the programs ability to read how passive and active voice is deployed. Extending beyond technological limitations (or again, personal ones), this type of writing seems to me either for the student or the satirist. For the student, I think of the story told wherein Hunter S Thompson wrote out The Great Gatsby to learn what great writing feels like. Now, instead of having to merely type out a story, you could view the data from Voyant and imitate the style with your own story. It affords a level of creativity while still feeling like you are under the tutelage of a canonized writer. For the satirist (or postmodernist maybe), the tool affords a new depth to the writing of the people you want to satirize. But for someone who eventually wants to create a truly original work, the tools of Voyant will become less and less useful.

The last thing I want to touch on is about a website that imports some of the ideas that I have been tracking, and it is one that ‘reads’ your writing so that it may compare you to an author (for those interested, the website is iwl.me). The website also brings up Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence for me, in which his main theory is that for authors to rise above their influences, they must misread or misinterpret their predecessors. By using a website like iwl.me (which is right now, a poor iteration of what I would like), one could potentially track the aesthetic framework that they have drawn the most influence from. The potential writer could quickly pinpoint who they sound the most like, and purposefully subvert their own language, as well as their predecessor, to not have different ideas than their influences, but sound different as well.

Machine reading can not just help us understand texts better, but it can help us write better as well, not only by allowing us to run our favorite texts and the authors who influence us the most through text analysis tools so that we can see how they write and borrow the broad linguistic patterns we like. For tools that compare you to authors, and this use of text analysis tools would broadly not be for the student or satirist, we could find who we write like and subvert them by viewing how our writing relies on them. This may seem contradictory to my view of text analysis as edifying, but it is well known that we have to stand on the shoulders of giants first to create truly great works.

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