Helen Sword is professor and director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland. Her books on writing include The Writer’s Diet (University of Chicago Press, 2016), Stylish Academic Writing (2012), and Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (forthcoming).
CMOS: How did you come to think about writing as “flabby”?
HS: Many years ago, I read Richard Lanham’s book Revising Prose, which influenced me deeply as a writer. Lanham teaches you to identify the “lard factor” in your writing, based on the percentage of words that you could omit without significantly changing its meaning. The Writer’s Diet follows similar principles, but with a fitness metaphor thrown in.
To get from “flabby” to “fit,” it’s not enough just to “omit needless words,” in Strunk and White’s famous formulation. As any good writer already knows, vigorous sentences must be nourished with high-quality ingredients—the equivalent of eating balanced meals rather than junk food—and then put through a workout until they come out trim and toned. I think of it as the difference between taking an easy stroll on level ground and climbing a mountain to see a magnificent view.
CMOS: After warning us to limit the use of be verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been), you quote a famous (and admired) sentence in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities that has ten of them! So simply counting verbs is no guarantee of good writing. What’s an amateur to do?
HS: If you unconsciously use lots of be verbs in your writing, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re not working as hard as you could to craft active, energetic sentences. Counting the be verbs can help you become aware of the problem: “Wow, I used is and are ten times in a single paragraph without even noticing! Maybe I could zing up my prose by throwing in some more vivid verbs.” But if you have consciously repeated certain words or phrases for stylistic reasons—like Dickens in Tale of Two Cities or Shakespeare in Hamlet’s soliloquy—you probably don’t need The Writer’s Diet. Great writing can’t be reduced to an algorithm.
CMOS: What kind of measures does your Writer’sDiet Test use? For example, how much can a writer use abstract nouns and still be “fit & trim”?
HS: When I was first developing the Writer’sDiet Test, I chose examples of the liveliest and stodgiest nonfiction writing I could find and extrapolated the initial values from there. Since then, I’ve tweaked, tested, streamlined, and elaborated the test based on well over a thousand writing samples—a process of informed evaluation based on extensive reading, rhetorical analysis, intuition, and, yes, a dollop of subjectivity.
There’s a chart at the back of the book that tells you the percentages I’ve used for each word category in the test. For example, if 6 percent or more of the words in a given passage are nominalizations (“zombie nouns”), your diagnosis in that category will tip from “needs toning” to “flabby.”
CMOS: You identify it, this, that, and there as “waste words.” In some instances, it’s difficult to avoid them (QED). Can you give some examples of when they’re wasted?
HS: I wouldn’t call them “wasted” so much as “in the way.” For example: “In this sentence it can be observed that there are many words but that very little gets said.” Do you see how it, this, that, and there work together to weigh the sentence down? Each of these little words can be useful when employed sparingly and with intent. But sometimes, especially when they gather together in clumps, they act as empty filler.
Great writing can’t be reduced to an algorithm.”
CMOS: There are so many charming features of your book: It’s physically small; it gets right to the point; it has exercises. It even has color coding! (Yes, that’s a lot of its; pretend we’re Dickens.) The colors are an excellent visual tool for showing the problems that cause a chunk of writing to flunk your test. What gave you the idea for using color in this way?
HS: I’ve always loved combining scholarship and color. As a college student working on my English essays, I would use colored pencils to highlight metaphors in passages of poetry. Later, as a faculty member applying for tenure, I distracted myself from my anxieties by color-coding the file folders containing evidence of my academic labor. We mostly read and write in black and white. Color can help us differentiate among types of words and see our sentences with new eyes.
CMOS: The Writer’sDiet Test is a fascinating tool. To watch it work, we dumped in the preface from the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and this was the verdict:
CMOS: It seems we should be watching our nouns and prepositions?
HS: No disrespect to the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style, but the passage you’ve excerpted does have a great many abstract nouns strung together with repetitive prepositions. It’s all about people—authors, editors, publishers—but you have to work hard to find them.
CMOS: But is every kind of writing meant to be lean? Are there any kinds of writing that are legitimately less “lean and mean” than others?
HS: I wrote The Writer’s Diet with writers of a specific kind in mind: those who already know in their gut that their sentences are long-winded and slow-moving, but they can’t quite figure out why. If you’re trying to communicate complex ideas to a nonspecialist audience, the book can help you learn to do so with energy and panache. But if you are, say, a medical researcher or analytical philosopher writing for a small cohort of fellow specialists, you may feel that your own disciplinary conventions are better suited for the task.
CMOS: Any final advice for writers who might take the online Writer’sDiet Test?
HS: Occasionally people tell me that they’ve run a passage by Jane Austen or Henry James through the test, and the diagnosis came out “Flabby” (or worse yet, “Heart attack!”)—so therefore the test must be deeply flawed. I generally reply that running the test on a famous writer’s prose is like sticking a household thermometer into a pot of boiling water; you can’t really blame the instrument when it explodes in your hand! My goal is to help writers, not to chastise or shame them—and certainly not to judge them. The Writer’s Diet works best when taken with a sense of humor and a grain of salt.