This column marks the end of a 2-part series on the art of polishing academic writing. In the May-June issue (TLT #44.3), I looked at the need to remove unnecessary words and follow a “less is more” approach in order to improve overall clarity and readability. In my previous column (44.4), I introduced The Writer’s Diet (Sword, 2016), a book which helps improve your writing based on five core grammatical principles. With this issue, I’ll take a deep dive into The Writer’s Diet Test (TWDT) website (Sword, n.d.), showcasing how it transforms flabby academic writing via a simple workflow and a few common sense usage tips.
A Quick Review
In short, TWDT does not evaluate your writing per se; instead, it counts instances of egregious words according to five criteria, which Sword (2016) summarizes as follows:
Use active verbs whenever possible; favor concrete language over vague abstractions; avoid long strings of prepositional phrases; employ adjectives and adverbs only when they contribute something new to the meaning of a sentence; and finally, reduce your dependence on four pernicious “waste words”: it, this, that, and there. (p. 1)
Using a tongue-and-cheek diet and exercise metaphor, the site rates each criterion as Lean, Fit & Trim, Needs Toning, Flabby, and Heart Attack via a simple algorithm, highlighting each questionable word in a color-coded manner. The more marked words you have, the flabbier your diagnosis (Sword, 2016).
To demonstrate the TWDT analysis process, I’ll use a text sample taken from my first ever published article, about utilizing Web 2.0 technologies in the EFL classroom (Talandis Jr., 2008):
Connectivism (Siemens, 2004), an outgrowth of social constructivism, is a learning theory taking into account the new digital landscape we find ourselves in. Several tenets of this theory help provide a firm theoretical context and justification for computer assisted language learning. Similar to social constructivism, a connectivist viewpoint places knowledge acquisition within a social context, emphasizing that learning rests within a diversity of opinions. Given this assertion, nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate the learning process. With over 100 million websites and growing, the capacity of being able to find new information is a critical skill, more important, in fact, than what is currently known. The notion of learning ecologies (Campbell, 2005; Campbell, 2006; Sealy-Brown, 1999; Siemens, 2004) provides a powerful metaphor giving shape to a digital age pedagogy. By visualizing learning as a holistic, organic process, it emphasizes learning as it takes place in naturally occurring, self-regulating patterns of relationships. (p. 800)
I chose this sample due to its high density of technical academic language, which is quite common in our line of work. What can TWDT do to improve such writing?
A Suggested Workflow
Step 1: Analyze Your Manuscript Section by Section
In terms of your overall writing process, I recommend TWDT be used at the end, after your first draft is completed. Using the site puts you deep into an editing frame of mind, which can be quite distracting and time consuming if you are simultaneously thinking of what to say and how you say it. In other words, don’t strive for perfection at first; just get your ideas out there in rough form. Once the first draft is done, copy and paste sections of it at a time into TWDT. Remember the site can only take samples from 100 to 1,000 words, so if a section is quite long, divide it up accordingly, a paragraph or three at a time.
Step 2: Remove Text You Don’t Want Evaluated
Before clicking the “Run the Test” button, go through your sample and place any text you don’t want TWDT to evaluate within parentheses (see Figure 2).
Although hard to see in Figure 2, to improve accuracy, I have placed theoretical terms which cannot be changed within parenthesis, such as (connectivism), (social constructivism), and (connectivist). Same goes for all in-text citations, which thankfully were already enclosed in parenthesis. Although this sample does not show it, direct quotations are another candidate for removal. After all, you want TWDT to analyze your writing, not someone else’s.
Step 3: Run the Test
Once you’ve removed the words you don’t want the program to evaluate, click the Run the Test button and see what you get. If you’d like a reminder of each category, right-click on one of the bars to bring up a pop-up explanation. In my case, unsurprisingly, the sample came back with a Flabby diagnosis (Figure 3):
TWDT presents the results in full color, with all words in parenthesis automatically stricken out. Unfortunately, since color graphics cannot be displayed in this journal, these results are a bit difficult to discern here. To compensate, I’ve listed the results in Table 1 above, which shows the specific instances per each of the five categories:
Step 4: Tackle the Most Egregious Categories First
As you look over your result, make note of the most egregious areas, where you’ll need to place your attention first. In my case, I have two Heart Attack categories to deal with (Abstract Nouns and Adjectives/Adverbs), so this is where I’ll begin. In the process of whipping these into shape, I’ll also keep an eye out for dropping a Waste Word or two so as to improve its Needs Toning score. Overall, I’m looking to get my sample in as best a shape as possible, ideally Fit & Trim, but I’ll settle for any amount of improvement. This means embarking on a journey of trial and error as I look over each egregious instance and play with alternatives. As you go about this polishing process, ask yourself the following questions:
Can this word be deleted? If you don’t lose anything essential from what you’re trying to say, then this is often the best and easiest solution.
If a word can’t be deleted, can I find a better option in a Thesaurus? Time to dust off your copy, or even more conveniently, access thesaurus.com on your smartphone for convenient access to alternatives.
How about changing the form of the word? This trick works especially well with zombie nouns (Sword, 2016, p. 21), by expressing them in their verb forms (i.e., theoretical => theorize; justification => justify).
Can you avoid this word by writing around it? For example, can some illustrative examples take the place of that zombie noun?
To illustrate this polishing process, let’s go through one of the sentences from my sample text:
Several tenets of this theory help provide a firm theoretical context and justification for computer assisted language learning. (18 words)
This one is especially ripe for improvement, as it contains two instances of Ad-words (several, theoretical), a zombie noun (justification), a Waste Word (this), and two prepositions (of, for). My overall priority is on reducing the number of abstract nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, so after a bit of effort I reach the following:
In short, this theory helps theorize and justify computer assisted language learning. (12 words)
As I pondered my original sentence, I realized I did not actually need the phrase “several tenets of this theory”, as it brought in too much detail, thus muddying the waters. In addition, by changing “justification” to “justify” and “theoretical context” to “theorize”, I could increase clarity, reduce word count, and make the sentence more active. Also, since “context” appears in the following sentence, this reformulation had the added benefit of reducing repetition. Given these extensive changes, I felt a need for adding the transition “In short” at the beginning to maintain cohesion with the previous sentence. Keep this in mind as you update your prose. Changes can have ripple effects, so remain vigilant. Overall, I’m happy with the result, so I went over the remaining sentences likewise, experimenting with various ideas, checking and rechecking my score, slowly working my way towards a greater level of fitness.
Step 5: Don’t overdo it!
Beware: TWDT can smell like catnip to those perfectionists among us. If you’re an incessant tinkerer, take care not to fall into a rabbit hole of never-ending tweaks and changes. As you go about your polishing work, a good sign to stop is when you begin creating new problems as you fix old ones. Try your best to avoid any Heart Attacks, but understand the flab cannot always melt away. Take heart, however: Often all you need is to remove a single word or two to reach a higher fitness level.
So, how did it go with my sample text? Well, after working in the manner described above, TWDT helped me produce the following result:
Connectivism (Siemens, 2004), an outgrowth of social constructivism, is a learning theory taking into account the new digital landscape we find ourselves in. In short, this theory helps theorize and justify computer assisted language learning. Similar to social constructivism, a connectivist viewpoint sees learning taking place within a diversity of opinions, whenever humans interact. Nurturing and maintaining relationships thus facilitate the learning process. Given the explosive growth of the internet, the skill of finding new information becomes critical, more important than what one currently knows. The notion of learning ecologies (Campbell, 2005; Campbell, 2006; Sealy-Brown, 1999; Siemens, 2004) provides a powerful metaphor giving shape to a digital age pedagogy, one where learning holistically grows within self-regulating patterns of interconnected relationships.
Banzai! All my work paid off, and I got the coveted Fit & Trim diagnosis. Despite being just a demonstration, achieving this result felt really good. I experienced a feeling of accomplishment similar to stepping on a scale in the morning and seeing I’ve lost a substantial amount of weight. I was able to cut 33 words and express my ideas with greater skill and clarity. It took some time, but the insights I gained motivated me to keep going. Herein lies part of your reward for working with TWDT: Yes, polishing work takes time and effort, but the learning you receive provides a quick return on your investment.
In the end, the primary benefit of TWDT is bringing greater conscious awareness to your prose while eliminating unconscious writing. It turns the abstract concept of “less is more” into a clear and actionable process. Academic writing can be a pernicious beast which takes time to learn how to tame. In the end, trust your sense of what’s right and wrong, of what works best given your particular needs and style. TWDT is just a mindless algorithm, after all, one which views Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a Flabby piece of writing (Sword, 2016)! Have fun, don’t take it too seriously, and learn to enjoy the polishing stage of academic writing.
Sword, H. (2016). The writer’s diet: A guide to fit prose. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Sword, H. (n.d.). The writer’s diet: The test. Retrieved from http://www.writersdiet.com/test.php
Talandis Jr., J. (2008). Web 2.0 in the ELT classroom: An introduction. In K. Bradford-Watts (Ed.), JALT2007 Conference Proceedings (pp. 795-807). Tokyo: JALT.