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When famous authors write flabby prose

By Helen Sword | FAQs

From time to time I get emails like this one from an outraged visitor to the Writer’s Diet website:

As a test of the ‘Academic validity’ of this tool, I decided to test the following: 800 words of Nietzsche’s first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil, came back as: Overall: Flabby, Verbs and Adjectives: Need toning, prepositions and is, there, that: Heart attack. Do you see the problem here? You’re advertising this as an editing tool for academic work, my concern is that people may write and then delete excellent work because of this thing.

I developed the WritersDiet Test as a formative feedback tool for people who want to learn some simple, easy-to-remember techniques for writing more clearly and energetically.  Running the work of a famous author through the test is rather like sticking a thermometer into a volcano and then complaining about instrument failure.

In The Writer’s Diet I address this issue at length, analyzing flabby yet fabulous passages by the likes of William Shakespeare, Vladimir Nabokov, and Richard Dawkins to show how and why great writers occasionally bend and even break the rules.

Here’s what I wrote about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which scores Lean or Fit & Trim in four out of the five Writer’s Diet categories but rates as Flabby overall due to its Heart-Attack-inducing quantity of “waste words” (it, this, that, and there):

If Abraham Lincoln had carried a laptop computer with wifi access on the train to Gettysburg, he might have pasted his hastily-written speech into the WritersDiet Test and noticed a few verbal tics – the double that, the repeated its – that he hadn’t picked up on before.   Would he then have tweaked his ‘Flabby’ text to make it ‘Fit and trim’?  Maybe, maybe not.  As a politician, Lincoln would no doubt have understood that a feedback tool designed for academic writers will not necessarily apply to speech writing.  And as an experienced rhetorician, he would have had the self-confidence to make his own decisions rather than relying on the advice of an automated computer program.

[excerpted from H. Sword, The Writer’s Diet, Auckland University Press, 2015]

My grumpy correspondent worries that “people may write and then delete excellent work” because of the WritersDiet Test.  I prefer to assume that writers who are capable of producing excellent work will have the good sense to make an intelligent judgment about whether or not to delete it.

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