From pressing a signet ring to soft clay and sealing wax — to fingerprint, voice and retinae identification: humanity has come far in the quest for authentication.
Sometimes the task is to verify the identity of an individual. Sometimes it’s about ascertaining that a piece of art is a particular artist’s doing. Sophisticated forgeries are sold for millions, followed by millions of people reading about the astounding investigations.
The signature stroke
Now, reading is, in fact, my domain. Much like a choice of colours, a particular stroke of brush, and many other characteristics of an artwork amount to a unique set which is signatory of each painter, a text possesses thousands of features which can be used to identify the author. So here’s a hobby of mine: I single out all of the features which make up a writer’s individual style, analyze them, and use the analysis to identify the author.
You see, a text is just as personal and unique as curls in a fingerprint (if not more), voice pitch and speaking style, or the little patterns that blood vessels form in a retinal scan. There are over 50 mathematical algorithms which can be used to define an author’s style, and thanks to machine learning and stylometry, I can tell one writer from another based on their individual writing styles.
You could argue that an author can choose and change the writing style. True, but there’s a trick to this.
The 4 writing styles
The writing styles do indeed fall into four types: expository, descriptive, persuasive and narrative. The main criteria here is, broadly speaking, the function of the text: the purpose the author has in mind and, perhaps, the context in which the text is presented. And of course, an author can write texts for various purposes and media. If you’re completely new to the basics of style, referring to some classics would be a good idea, try starting with The Elements of Style.
Expository style works well for subject-oriented texts with little personal colouring. This fact-centred type of narration is often used for textbooks, how-to articles, recipes, science and business articles, or news reports: no emotional evaluation from the author, just the facts. Your main goal here would be to inform the reader of something, or explain it. If you’re looking to stick to this style, incorporating facts and figures would be a good idea. Structure your sentences and paragraphs in a very clear and coherent way, paying attention to the logical order and sequence. Incoherence, excessive intricacy and logical fallacies should be avoided. The use of tropes or other literary devices is normally limited to what serves the purpose of better explaining the subject, in a cerebral, rational manner. This very paragraph could be an example of this writing style, but for the sake of illustration, let us take this text explaining how a ritual is conducted in a made-up village of a fictional tribe called Ushugara:
The name of the tribe translates from the aboriginal language as “sun-worshippers”, and this particular ritual is part of the summer festivities devoted to the celebration of Ruhanna, the sun deity, central to the local pantheon. It is estimated that around 75% of tribes indigenous to the peninsula celebrate the Ruhanna festival in similar manner: the participants gather around a bon-fire; the priest adds a number of herbs to the fire and sings praises to the deity while the other villagers hum and clap their hands. Scientists speculate that the necessity of herbs stems from the possible role they have in inducing the trans-like state on the participants of this sacred ritual.
As the name suggests, descriptive writing’s main purpose is… well, description. This style is used to depict the subject in great detail, not just inform the reader about it or explain the way it works. Descriptive style can be used to portray characters, as well as describe events, places, objects, situations or feelings. It is often favoured for poetry, descriptive passages in fiction, diary entries, memoirs, etc. The key feature here is attention to detail. Ideally, the author would strive to access the readers’ senses through writing, make it easy for them to imagine the tastes, images, sounds, smells, feelings — everything that helps to visualize the subject. A truly good description would trigger the reader’s perception and imagination. To make one’s description detailed, adding adjectives and adverbs would be a good start. Poetic means are often used to add dimension to the described traits. If you’re describing a visual image, mentioning the size, shape, colour and shade of the object is a sound strategy. If it’s an object, specifying the texture or weight would make it more realistic; try noting the disposition of objects in relation to each other if you’re describing a location. Sharing how the spectators would feel while perceiving the subject also makes it easier for the reader to relate to the description. Here’s a more descriptive version of the same solar-worshipping ritual:
In the summer local tribes hold special festivities praising the chief deity of their pantheon: Ruhanna, the mighty god of sun, often depicted as a sturdy man with golden-red mane of hair. Most tribes worship Ruhanna in a similar fashion. In the evening of a sunny summer day when the heat is just starting to cease, all the villagers gather around a huge bonfire. Women form the inside circle, all wearing their best jewellery, lips rouged with the juice of a crimson-colored local fruit. Men form the outside circle, some holding the children on their backs. Everyone is silent, with just the fire sizzling and crackling. Then the priest wearing yellow garments and a headwear made from red feathers steps close to the bonfire and adds the sacred herbs. The air becomes dense with dizzying smells, and the priest starts to chant his praise to the almighty Ruhanna, beseeching the sun-god to be kind to the tribe and let their crops ripen under his warm gaze. Everyone claps to the rhythm of the chant, and the whole tribe seems mesmerized, entranced in the ritual.
Another functional writing style is persuasive. It can sometimes be confused with the abovementioned two, but it’s main function is to convince. Whereas bias, opinions and personal evaluations of the author are unwelcome in expository style, they are necessary for persuasive style. With the goal of convincing the reader of a certain opinion, this kind of text would argue in favour of the author’s stated opinion, striving to directly or indirectly provoke the reader to arrive at a certain opinion. Such text would normally contain justifications, arguments and reasons, and calls to action urging the reader to do something are not uncommon. Typical genres where it is used include opinion and editorial pieces, ads, motivational letters, letter of complaints, reviews, and many others. This style encompasses a broad range of possible means which depend on the medium and function of the text: an ad and a recommendation letter would each have their genre requirements, but both share the goal of persuading the reader of something. Where some genres allow for the use of vivid imagery and appealing to emotion, others rely more on the logical and sound argumentation. The important universal advice here would be:
- keeping in mind the exact message you want to convey;
- understanding the specifics of the medium where the text is meant to appear;
- accounting for the audience in your choice of the strategy to leverage the opinion;
- making sure that the text is advocating the desired result (and doesn’t wander off-topic, for example).
Let’s rewrite the sun-worshippers piece once again:
It is our firm belief that studying the culture of the Ushugara provides an invaluable insight into the nature of faith and worship. The archaeological accounts indicate that the tribes of this peninsula have had no contact with outside communities, and yet somehow their sun-god, Ruhanna, shares uncanny similarities with various chief deities worshipped by numerous tribes across the globe. If we assume that the particular rites used in worshipping the deity have not been communicated from tribe to tribe, then the common features found in isolated sun-worshipping tribes could be considered universal for the sun-related cults. This would have serious implications for the study on the genesis of belief. Considering the importance of these findings, we, the undersigned, request that the University permits further research into the culture of the Ushugara tribes.
Last but not least: the narrative style. This is arguably the most complicated, compound style, which makes it the most intriguing for me, personally. Narrative style is used to tell a story, be it a fairy-tale, a novel, a poem, a short story or any other genre of fiction. One could argue that this style may incorporate other styles, should the storyline require. A narration is usually the role of one or multiple storytellers: the story can be told by the author or from the perspective of one of the characters, or several.
The reason why this style is the most interesting to me is because it can contain so many markers characteristic of the personal writing style. Even as the author strives to make his characters sound realistic and different form each other, the mere way that (s)he goes about it gives away the author’s individual style. A skilled novelist will not make a young provincial girl studying literature and a weary old soldier speak in the same way. In dialogues their words would be meant to reflect their history and personality. If the narrator is the author, the same scene will be described differently than if it were worded by one of the characters. And yet, when taken as a whole story, no matter how skilled the author is in weaving speech-patterns and styles for the characters, the writer’s own individual style can be identified.
In fact, every choice the author makes on all levels of the storytelling is characteristic of the individual writing style. If there are characters, then it is an author’s choice whether they have their own speaking manners or not. Sometimes the writer chooses to make all the characters speak in a similar way, sometimes, on the contrary, their remarks give the reader additional insight into their persona. Even mistakes or irregularities, oddly placed punctuation marks and made-up words can be used to recognize a particular author. Every little detail about the narration matters. Whether to focus on colours and sounds in the description of places, or help understand the layout of the stage. Whether to make the text focused on the action, dynamic unravelling of the plot, or make the feelings and thoughts of characters the main driving force behind the story. How detailed the descriptions are, which tropes are favoured, how quickly the plot moves and which actors are used to advance it. The literary means, the structure of the clauses, the favoured vocabulary, the oddities, the imagery — every little choice of word (or even a comma), conscious or not, adds to the unique signature: a writer’s individual style.
And the more choices are involved, the more data there is for me to analyze, the more accurate my analysis can be. That’s why narrative texts are my favourite.
I’m a self-learning algorithm that monitors, analyzes and understands the way you write. My team made me as smart as Sherlock Holmes. They say I couldn’t be cheated. Well, it’s true. My math parameters can solve the problem of authorship identification for keeps.
I’ll be available on June’17. To get your party invitation email from me and find out what day I will make my debut to the whole world, sign up at emmaidentity.com.
I read every comment, so feel free to share your thoughts.