Literary forensics expert Don Foster is world-renowned for his ability to recognise authorship from writing style. But people also develop their own unique approach to laying out text when web writing for the screen.
Foster is an English literature professor at Vassar, an arts college located in New York state. He has become internationally known for his ability to identify the authors of previously unidentified work. He has been able to conclusively demonstrate that everyones writing has a unique fingerprint.
He does this by using a computer program to analyse text samples for word choice, punctuation, spelling, habitual phrasing, poetic devices, source material and much more.
Helping the FBI
At the request of the editors of New York magazine he unmasked the anonymous author of the book Primary Colors, a best-seller based on the 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign. By scanning writing samples of potential authors he was convinced that the writer was political journalist Joe Klein.
Klein denied this for five months until the evidence became conclusive. The FBI has since called Foster in on a number of celebrated cases. Our spoken vocabulary changes over time and is influenced by the people we associate with, and by the media that we are exposed to.
This may necessitate a single editor overseeing all published material and addressing the more obvious anomalies
Foster believes that an actors vocabulary reflects the role that they are playing at the time. More surprisingly, he has been able to identify which parts Shakespeare was playing as an actor while working on his next manuscript by the verbal fingerprint carried over to the new work.
When an editorial assistant left the company I was working for, and after I handed him a leaving gift he grinned and responded by giving me a large ornamental brass key with a plastic tag that said major. Its still by my computer to remind me. It was an in joke, as he regularly used to point out that I over-used the words major and key.
Word frequency analyser
After writing a lengthy feature article I will put it through a word frequency analyser to ensure that words are not unnecessarily repeated. I can check that there is a rich and unpretentious use of words and that my favourites are not readily apparent.
But its not just words that provide a unique fingerprint.
I have found a parallel when training people for writing for the web courses it concerns the way they lay text out for screen reading.
The participants are given a sample of text and are asked to break it down and style it visually for greater readability.
Their first attempt is usually wide of the mark invariably too long. They fail to take full advantage of the possibilities offered by text styling. But its not long before people understand how it needs to be done and they develop an individual approach.
The differences may not be discernible to the untrained eye but, when analysed closely, their approach is almost mechanical and quite distinctive. This, coupled with their choice of words, makes their work as individual as their own signature.
A laudable aim of more go-ahead enterprises is to encourage corporate verbal branding. To create a recognisable voice of the company across all written and verbal communication. But in reality individual authorship will always remain detectable. This may necessitate a single editor overseeing all published material and addressing the more obvious inconsistencies.
* If you want to read more about Don Foster type 'Vassar and Don Fraser' into Google. You can still buy Author unknown: On the trail of anonymous by Donald W. Foster, the book was published in 2000.