A writer’s guide to getting trim

Helen Sword’s (2007) book The writer’s diet: A guide to fit prose was published for an international audience in 2016. Sword (2016) uses healthy nutrition and fitness as a metaphor to help academic writers improve their prose. Rather than produce heart attack-inducing writing, Sword surveys academics’ language use with the aim of encouraging “fit prose.” Sword illustrates fit prose through clear explanations, humor, and numerous concrete examples. Test your own prose fitness using an automated test that provides instant feedback (The Writer’s Diet http://writersdiet.com/). I tested some recently revised writing samples. The test identified sections from “fit and trim”, “needs toning” to “flabby.” I obviously still have work to do for “fit” prose!

Easily readable, Sword’s book serves as a refresher for writers who have forgotten elementary school grammar lessons as well as those who would like to polish their writing. Organized in five chapters, Sword examines different parts of speech: verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs, and “waste” words (i.e., it, this, that, and there). Each chapter begins with some key principles in using these parts of speech. For example, Sword recommends using “strong, specific, robust action verbs,” and limiting be-verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) (p. 5). Sword recommends that academic writers “anchor abstract ideas in concrete language and images” (p. 17). For academic writers disposed to using abstract nouns and nominalizations (i.e., “nouns that have been formed from verbs, adjectives or other nouns,” p. 17), this may be a challenge. Sword provides numerous good and bad examples from literary and scholarly work. More important, Sword leads by example, encouraging and guiding academic writers how to write “fit prose.” Nominalizations or “zombie nouns” – the jargon used by experts in a particular discipline — pose a problem for scholars, since academic journals are filled with abstract language easily repeated in citations. Sword indicates that skilled writers also write in powerful ways that eschew rules and guidelines – leaving the choice of what works to individual writers. As she notes on the Writer’s Diet website, if you are an expert in Derrida’s work (or for that matter, any other esoteric academic topic), you may have to use the “advanced tab” to exclude certain words in testing writing samples to gain useful feedback.

Each chapter concludes with exercises that encourage writers to analyze their writing and experiment with language. One exercise that I enjoyed reading about and intend to try is that of brainstorming abstract nouns to generate concrete language (p. 26). Alternative concrete language for “bureaucracy” included “stacks of manila folders”, “men in grey suits”, “rubber stamps”, “filing cabinets”, and “lines of grumpy-looking people”. This exercise works to generate alternative descriptions of abstract ideas that writers can use. What concrete language would you suggest for “bureaucracy”? What are the nominalizations that you use? What about your discipline and research area?

Of course, I could not resist putting the first draft of this blogpost through the writing test. It scored a “fit and trim,” but revealed some bingeing in prepositions (“flabby”). After an initial pruning of prepositions, in a second test, the sample remained at “fit and trim”, but moved to “needs toning” in prepositions.  By the time I got to the third test, this blog post was “fit and trim” overall, while “lean” in be-verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and waste words. I obtained a “lean” rating on all items by the 8th revision. Using the test helped me identify the use of prepositions and nominalizations as something to work on. Perhaps I’ll read those chapters again. You might ask, does gaining a “lean” rating on the Writer’s Diet Test indicate good writing? Since evaluations of the quality of writing will always lie with the reader — you, dear readers, may very well answer that question very differently!

A fun read, Sword’s book can be used immediately. And yes, try the Writer’s Diet Test. See whether you need to put your writing on a diet.

Kathy Roulston

For a review of another of Helen Sword’s books, Air & light & time & space: How successful academics write,  see https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol24/iss7/17



Sword, H. (2016). The writer’s diet: A guide to fit prose Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press. (Kindle edition).


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