Writing Without Words was the project completed for my final year on my MA Communication Design course, and was influential in shaping how I work with data today. Its intention was to explore various methods of visualizing literature. I gathered data on a novel’s structure, punctuation, parts of speech, and words per sentence in order to generate the final complex patterns. The focus of the project was the novel On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, because of its importance to me as a surly teenager.
To create this project, I gathered all of the data by hand, counting words and sentences, and carefully dividing a battered copy of On the Road into key themes using markers and highlighters. I was able to reduce the entire novel into a stack of paper filled with lists of numbers, a process of compression I found satisfying. The graphics were also created ‘by hand’ in Adobe Illustrator instead of writing any code in order to generate the final visuals.
I came up with three ways of visualizing literature, two of which are described here. For one method I wanted to visualize the hidden structure found within a piece of literature. I liked the idea of visualizing the structure of a novel as a living, breathing thing, and this intent was the basis of my “Literary Organism” visualization. Here, a tree structure is used to show how Part One of the novel is split into chapters, chapters are split into paragraphs, paragraphs are split into sentences, and sentences are split into words. The outcome is a cellular, plant-like structure.
For another approach, I noticed that the number of words per sentence varies depending on the writing style of the writer. Shorter sentences mean the writer has a choppy, terse writing style, and longer sentences imply that the writer writes in a free-flowing, leisurely manner. I used this information to create a system where a line would turn right after each sentence (scaled by the number of words per sentence), and this would create a graphic that I call a “sentence drawing.” In this approach, one can visually discern whether a writer uses longer or shorter sentences.