Upon finishing your manuscript, the best thing to do before actual submission is to have someone read it over and provide feedback. Getting a fresh perspective on your work enables you to identify potential problems and areas for improvement, thus improving your chances for acceptance. However, it’s not always possible to find a willing reader to take the necessary time to review your paper. People are busy, and it’s asking a lot to have someone dive deeply into your work and provide constructive feedback. In these situations, wouldn’t it be great if you had access to a simple tool which could analyze your writing and provide you with word-level feedback across five clearly defined criteria? Well, you’re in luck—The Writer’s Diet (TWD), a short 77-page book and online analytical test by Helen Sword (2016), does just that. As a powerful addition to your writing workflow, I’m excited to introduce TWD to you over the next two Writer’s Workshop columns. In Part 1, I’ll cover the five basic writing principles and introduce core features of the online test. In Part 2, I’ll showcase how the test can be used to tighten up flabby academic writing and provide practical advice for getting more out of this powerful tool.
The premise of TWD is that “far too many writers send their best ideas out into the world on brittle-boned sentences weighted down with rhetorical flab” (Sword, 2016, p. 1). By utilizing a tongue-in-cheek exercise metaphor, TWD promises to whip your writing into shape if you follow five simple fitness rules:
- Use active verbs whenever possible
- Favor concrete language over vague abstractions
- Avoid long strings of prepositional phrases
- Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, only when they contribute new meaning
- Reduce dependence on four common “waste words”: it, this, that, there.
Let’s explore each of these principles in turn, then examine how the accompanying online test turns them into a powerful tool for analyzing your writing.
Use Active Verbs
According to Sword (2016), this principle consists of two aspects: favoring strong action verbs over weak “lazy” ones and limiting use of be-verbs:
Verbs power our sentences as surely as muscles propel our bodies… Not all verbs pack the same punch, however. Active verbs such as grow, fling, and exhale infuse your writing with vigor and metaphorical zing; they put legs on your prose. Forms of the verb to be—for example is, was, are—do their duty too, but they carry you nowhere new. Think of them as the gluteus maximus of your grammatical anatomy. (p. 5)
Refashioning sentences to contain more active verbs takes extra work, but the effort pays dividends by providing a sense of agency and urgency, adding force and clarity, and demanding careful precision. Be-verbs, on the other hand, “function much like equal signs in a mathematical equation” (p. 6) that saps vigor from your writing if used too much.
Favor Concrete Language Over Vague Abstractions
Since nouns form the “bones” of language (Sword, 2016, p. 17), increasing use of concrete imagery connected to the physical senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell is an excellent way to illustrate abstract ideas. In other words, the concept of “show, don’t tell” still holds true, even in an academic context. Abstract nouns, especially those that have been formed from verbs, adjectives, or other nouns, communicate less effectively:
When you turn a verb into a noun by adding a suffix such as ment or tion (confine=>confinement; reflect=>reflection), you sap its core energy. Likewise, an abstract noun formed from an adjective tends to lack substance and mass, like a marrowless bone. That’s why nouns created from other parts of speech, technically known as “nominalizations,” are colloquially called “zombie nouns”: they suck the life-blood from potentially lively prose. (p. 21)
This is an especially challenging principle to follow within academic writing, which is typically filled with words ending in suffixes like ion, ism, ty, ment, ness, ance, or ence. The trick is to identify these abstract nouns, then experiment with ways of communicating the same information by using the verb or adjective forms or by providing concrete examples (p. 26):
The children demonstrated their engagement through their participation in a range of activities.
The children engaged in many different activities.
The children played games, sang songs, and told stories.
Avoid Long Strings of Prepositional Phrases
Prepositions, while essential, detract when used too much (Sword, 2016). Unless done for rhetorical effect, Sword recommends avoiding strings of more than three in a row, varying the prepositions used, and never allowing a noun and its accompanying verb to be separated by more than about 12 words. This principle is especially hard to follow in academic writing, which tends to favor long, convoluted sentences packing a tremendous amount of information into a small space. Long serpentine sentences containing many prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses can dilute the energy by placing too much distance between the main nouns and their accompanying verbs. Avoiding these problems will require you to experiment with ways to smoothen out your prose:
For example, what happens when you cut long strings of prepositions down to size, or when you replace static prepositions with dynamic ones, or when you ensure the word “of” occurs no more than two or three times in a single paragraph? (p. 36)
Use Adjectives and Adverbs Sparingly
Sword (2016) recommends allowing concrete nouns and active verbs to carry most of the descriptive load in your writing. Adjectives and adverbs are vital, for sure, but use them only when they contribute new information to a sentence:
No one can deny the impact of a well-placed adjective. However, a sentence crammed with too many artificial additives can function in your prose like a creamy sauce or a sugary cake in your diet: despite its seductive taste, it supplies no real nutrition. (p. 39)
If sentences contain too many abstract nouns and passive verbs, then adjectives and adverbs have nothing solid to enhance, thus creating a kind of “sugar rush” effect. This is quite common in academic writing, where “ad-words” frequently combine with abstract nouns and verbs to convey information. However, without the benefit of visual details and concrete examples, “the monotonous rhythms of academic ad-words risk lulling your readers to sleep” (p. 43). However, since academic ad-words often end with the following suffixes, they are easy to spot: able, ac, al, ant, ary, ent, ful, ible, ic, ive, less, ous.
Avoid Common “Waste Words”
According to Sword (2016), the words it, this, that, and there are overused and can be likened to the “bad fat” in our diet:
Not only do they supply little verbal nutrition, but their mere presence in a sentence often signals the proximity of other heart-attack-inducing elements such as be-verbs, abstract nouns, and long strings of prepositions. While waste words can add flavor and texture to any writing, in high doses they can clog up your prose as surely as cholesterol clogs your arteries or grease clogs your sink. (p. 49)
It and this are recommended only when the noun they refer to is clear. For example, phrases such as “It can be shown that…” or “We regard it as self-evident that…” showcase how waste words tend to congregate together. The same is true for there, which often appears alongside be-verbs: “There are many reasons why…”, “There is a rule that…” or “There could be no better way to…” Finally, as a general rule, avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or three times in a paragraph.
The Writer’s Diet Test
Useful as these five principles are for improving your writing, what sets TWD apart is the online test available at www.writersdiet.com/test.php. As Sword (2016, pp. 67-69) describes, the test is based on a simple algorithm and calculates the “fitness” of your writing in each of the five grammatical categories.
After pasting in a bit of text (from 100 to 1,000 words), the test highlights all words pertaining to each category. A color-coding system makes them easy to discern. For each 100 words in a sample, the test calculates a fitness rating according to a predetermined number of instances. For example, in the Be-verbs category, if you have less than three, you’re Lean. Exactly three means you’re Fit & Trim, four is Needs toning, while five instances means you’re Flabby. If your sample contains more than six be-verbs, you’re in Heart attack territory and in need for some editorial liposuction!
Caveats & Conclusion
One redeeming quality of TWD is that Sword (2016) takes great pains to foreground the limitations of her diagnostic system. As she writes,
The WritersDiet Test prompts you to think about how, why, and how often you use the highlighted words; however, you are not expected to delete them all or banish them completely. You might even decide, in the end, to make no changes at all… The WritersDiet Test offers a diagnosis, not a prescription; a pair of tinted glasses, not a magic bullet. It is up to you to make intelligent use of the targeted feedback the test provides. Sentences, like people, come in many shapes and sizes, and the world would become a very boring place if we all wrote—or looked—exactly the same way! (p. 67)
To prove her point, she ran her test on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which gave it an overall Flabby diagnosis! As Sword concedes, academic writers need to take these tongue-in-cheek ratings with a large grain of salt and rely ultimately on self-confidence, not the advice of an automated computer program.
In conclusion, despite the limitations of TWD, this analytic tool has become an indispensable part of my academic writing workflow. Now, before submitting any manuscript, I make time to run my prose through the test to at least get a sense of where my strengths and weaknesses lie across the five grammatical categories. I find this tool helps me consider each word and sentence carefully. As I ponder ways to cut one more be-verb to get a higher rating, I discover better ways to express my ideas. Often, I take the advice, but other times I’m willing to accept a Flabby score in a particular category if I feel I’ve done my best. In the end, I’m grateful for the perspective this test provides and the learning I’ve gained from its consistent use. In my next Writer’s Workshop column, I’ll take an in-depth look at how this test can transform an actual sample of academic writing and provide practical usage tips.
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