Do You Write Like Twain or Emerson?

Natalie Tripp, BYU University Communications

In designing a tool to help students write better essays, BYU English professor Pat Madden and graduate students Shelli Spotts and Courtney Bulsiewicz looked to biology for inspiration.

Just like the Human Genome Project maps out DNA to understand the human body, the Essay Genome Project analyzes defining characteristics of essays written by students and compares those characteristics to those from well-known classic and contemporary essayists.

“At times the essay has been considered the ‘stepchild’ to other writing forms,” says Spotts. “However, the essay is not a new writing tradition; it’s been around for hundreds of years.” With technical assistance from the Office of Digital Humanities, Madden, Spotts, Bulsiewicz, and a team of students created a corpus of essays from the past 500 years. The essays are analyzed by a computer algorithm that identifies the frequency at which authors use common words and phrases as well as sty- listic, tonal, and formal similarities in the writ- ing. Corpus analysis has been previously used for poetry and drama, but the Essay Genome Project is the first to create a corpus for essays. Anyone can submit an essay or blog post to the corpus. Within seconds the algorithm will share personalized information about the author’s writing style, including a list of essayists with similar styles.

The corpus was designed to compare authors and the evolution of essay subjects through differing time periods and geographical locations. It also traces a writer’s literary ancestors and descendants. Not only does the corpus help writers improve their skill, but the research also examines which essayists have had the greatest influence throughout time and whether originality exists.

“We want students to read many essayists, not only contemporary ones,” says Madden. “Students who are well-versed develop an appreciation for the tradition of the essay, recognize the ways they’ve been influenced, and make personal connections with past and present essayists.”

Humanities Magazine Fall 2016 Full Issue