Air & Light & Time & Space

WritersDiet creator Helen Sword has recently published a new book, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Harvard University Press, 2017), based on interviews with 100 successful academics about their writing backgrounds and practices....

New book, new look, again!

Now, for the first time since its publication by a small New Zealand press in 2007, The Writer’s Diet is available internationally in print and electronic editions through all good bookstores and online retailers. In celebration of the launch, the University of Chicago  Press is offering a 15% discount to subscribers of my quarterly e-newsletter, which you can sign up for by entering your name and email address at the bottom of this page.

Using the Advanced tab

So you’ve written a philosophy essay, you’ve referenced Derrida a fair bit, you quote from other scholars, and your topic is post-structuralist feminism. The WritersDiet Test is probably not going to be kind to you.  Your work is loaded with zombie nouns (post-structuralism and feminism, for a start) and other people’s words – which, however flabby they may be, you cannot change.

Luckily, there is help at hand.  By using the Advanced tab, you can exclude specified words or phrases from being counted when you run the test:

What’s wrong with the Writer’s Diet?

People sometimes write to tell me what’s wrong with the WritersDiet Test. Good writing cannot possibly be reduced to a numerical formula, they protest. Nor can an electronic tool be trusted to make judgments about a matter as complex and subjective as style.

I couldn’t agree more.

That’s why WritersDiet Test makes no attempt to measure for vividness of expression, clarity of thought, fluidity of style, or any of the other factors that matter most in engaging writing. The purpose of the test is modest: to alert writers to some of the sentence-level grammatical features that most frequently weigh down academic prose.

The power of metaphor

The Writer’s Diet evolved from a one-page handout that I used to distribute to the students in my undergraduate English classes. The title was “Writing and Editing Tips” or something equally bland, and my students paid about as much attention to it as they did to any of the other well-meaning writing advice that I routinely doled out to them in class: in other words, not much.

Then one day I decided to zing up the handout with a catchy metaphor. I relabelled it “The Writer’s Diet,” added some references to “fit and flabby” prose, and stuck on a new byline: “By Dr. Helen Sword, registered verbal nutritionist.” Within days after distributing the updated version, I knew that my changes had struck a chord. Although the writing and editing tips offered in the “new” handout were almost identical to those in the old one, my students started using them, talking about them, internalizing them, remembering them. That’s the power of metaphor.

When famous authors write flabby prose

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.

New website, new book, new look

Welcome to the new Writer’s Diet website! The site has been “re-skinned” to match the visual design of the book, which has just been published by Auckland University Press in a snazzy new edition.

The WritersDiet Test has remained substantially unchanged, aside from some adjustments to the colors and visual design.  The website, however, boasts a number of new features – most notably this blog.  You’ll also find a list of key Writer’s Diet principles, short answers to frequently asked questions, and links to a new Writer’s Diet Facebook page and Twitter feed.

How the WritersDiet Test works

It’s pretty simple, actually – so simple, in fact, that you can perform the test manually if you prefer to go low-tech.  Just gather together five colored highlighters (preferably orange, blue, green, yellow, and pink) and use the scoring charts at the back of the book to calculate your scores.

In a nutshell, the online test identifies words in each of five grammatical categories: nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives/adverbs, and a grab-bag category unscientifically dubbed “waste words” (it, this, that, there).  The higher the percentage of highlighted words in each category, the “flabbier” your diagnosis.