The Writer’s Diet // Helen Sword.

Lately I’ve been feeling my writing sluggish; it reads like thick moss. I’ve hit writer’s block and slumps before, and most of the time they smooth out with time and grit. But I decided to try my hands on something quicker—a diet of sorts.

True to the title, The Writer’s Diet dishes out the minimum, just enough to kick-start some slimming and trimming exercises. I’ll be honest, though: I’m not sure you need to read the book to glean from it. I’ll do you a favor and list her guidelines (excuse the BritE or British English):


1. Verbal verve
  • Favour strong, specific, robust action verbs (scrutinise, dissect) over weak, vague, lazy ones (have, do, show).
  • Limit your use of be-verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been).
2. Noun density
  • Anchor abstract ideas in concrete language and images.
  • Illustrate abstract concepts using real-life examples.
  • Limit your use of abstract nouns, especially nominalisation or “zombie nouns” (nouns that have been formed from verbs, adjectives, or other nouns; they usually end in -tion or –ment)
3. Prepositional podge
  • Avoid using more than three prepositional phrases in a row unless you do so to achieve a specific rhetorical effect.
  • Vary your prepositions.
  • As a general rule, do not allow a noun and its accompanying verb to become separated by more than about twelve words.
4. Ad-diction
  • Let concrete nouns and active verbs do most of your descriptive work.
  • Employ adjectives and adverbs only when they contribute new information to a sentence.
  • Avoid overuse of ‘academic ad-words’, especially those with the following suffixes: able, ac, al, ant, ary, ent, ful, ible, ic, ive, less, ous
5. Waste words
  • Use it and this only when you can state exactly which noun each word refers to.
  • As a general rule, avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or three times in a paragraph, except to achieve a specific stylistic effect.
  • Beware of sweeping generalisations that begin with ‘There‘.

These are good guidelines, and I like them. Couple with the Writer’s Diet Test, one can see if his or her prose is lean, fit & trim, needs toning, flabby, or heart attack. I was not surprised my more academic writing came out “needs toning” (though to be fair The Courage to Be has “be” and “being” a lot).

I was surprised to see my monthly blog to be fit and trim.


I share with Helen Sword’s disenchantment with academic writing: they tend to be blunted and boorish. She seems convinced, however, that academic writing can flare with crisp brilliance; indeed, I’ve read some who exemplify just that (Willie James Jennings and Katherine Sonderegger come to mind). But she often points to Shakespeare as the shining example. Last I checked, no academic work reads or even tries to read like Shakespeare.

There are always exceptions to the rules (just like this sentence by starting with “There are”). And Sword acknowledges that; she even lists stellar exceptions. Thus, these guidelines are optional, and following them does not guarantee writing will come easier. In fact, writing will most definitely get harder because you’ll be more mindful: Should I use this verb? Is there a better noun? How many times did I say “of”? What the hell does this “it” refer to? Do I need this adjective, does it add something essential to the sentence?

But fixing one’s word-choice is not always the better option. Simplicity is its own beauty, and flowery or imaginative word-choice might confuse the purpose of academic prose, which is to inform and persuade readers. Yes, all forms of writing should grip readers but don’t compromise content for form. I’m all for conscious and taut word-choice—less is more—but pillaging the thesaurus won’t always make better prose.

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