The Writing BASE

Key principles

excerpted from The Writers Diet by Helen Sword


  • Favor strong, specific, robust action verbs (scrutinize, dissect, recount, capture) over weak, vague, lazy ones (have, do, show).
  • Limit your use of be-verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being,


  • Anchor abstract ideas in concrete language and images.
  • Illustrate abstract concepts using real-life examples. (‘Show, don’t tell’.)
  • Limit your use of abstract nouns, especially nominalizations (nouns that have been formed from verbs or adjectives).


  • Avoid using more than three prepositional phrases in a row (e.g. ‘in a letter to the author of a book about birds’) 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.

Adjectives & adverbs

  • 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

It, this, that, there

  • 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’.

About the test

What is the WritersDiet Test?

The WritersDiet Test is a diagnostic tool designed to give you feedback on whether your writing is “flabby or fit.” Based on a simple algorithm, the test identifies some of the sentence-level grammatical features that most frequently weigh down stodgy prose.

How does the test work?

The WritersDiet Test highlights words in each of five grammatical categories. The higher the percentage of highlighted words, the “flabbier” your score.

How can the WritersDiet Test help me improve my writing?

The test has been designed to complement The Writer’s Diet, which discusses stylistic subtleties and exceptions that the test cannot address. For best results, use the book and test together.

Who uses the Writer’s Diet?

Originally designed for academic writers, the Writer’s Diet has also proven popular with students, technical writers, business analysts, journalists, and even fiction writers – anyone who aspires to write more clearly and engagingly.

Are the highlighted words in my writing sample “bad”?

No, not when used in moderation. The WritersDiet Test prompts you to think about how, why, and how often you use the highlighted words, but you are not expected to delete them all or to banish them from your writing.

My favorite author got a diagnosis of Flabby! Doesn’t that mean your test is flawed?

Not necessarily. Many fabulous pieces of prose will receive scores of Flabby or even Heart Attack, because stylish writers have the confidence and skill to play around with language in ways that the test is not designed or intended to evaluate.

What else do I need to know?

The WritersDiet Test is a blunt instrument, not a magic bullet. A stylish passage may score badly on the test, and a dull passage may score well. It is up to you to make intelligent use of the targeted feedback that the test provides.

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