- The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose by Helen Sword
In this fittingly slender work, Helen Sword prescribes five ‘deceptively simple’ rules to reduce the flab in our writing (1). Sharing them all here would necessitate a ‘spoiler alert’—but readers need only partake of her first page to see the five spelled out in a single sentence. Get to the point is not one of her rules, yet readers who follow Sword’s guidance will wield the keys to textual clarity, directness, and vigour. What more could a writer need?
Sword, professor and director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland, offers one straight-forward chapter per rule. Averaging a svelte twelve pages, each of the five chapters opens with two or three ‘key principles,’ proceeds with judiciously curated examples of the bad and good, and follows with creative exercises that address the key principles. Examples worth emulating come from understandably familiar stylists of prose and even poetry: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Joan Didion, Alison Gopnik, John McPhee, and other maestros. Examples warranting improvement come from high school essayists and from published articles across a variety of disciplines: biology, computer science, history, philosophy, sociology, and more. Throughout, Sword’s goal is to help readers internalize the difference in effectiveness between passive, agentless, vague, wordy, convoluted sentences and those that are vivid, specific, concrete, focused, direct. Not overwrought, the diet metaphor culminates with a charge to change how we think about writing: ‘If you successfully edit one piece of writing but then return to your old habits the next time you compose something new, your prose style will end up no better off [End Page 68] than before’ (63). Lapses in vigilance thus easily sabotage both writing and diets.1
Originally published in 2007 by Auckland University Press, The Writer’s Diet joins Sword’s acclaimed Stylish Academic Writing as a work that encourages attention and care in writing.2 Sharing an observation that prefigures Stylish Academic Writing, Sword asks readers who face ambiguous prose, ‘Why should we have to work so hard?’ (51). Because The Writer’s Diet addresses the sentence level, Sword’s ideas complement those in chapter 5 of Stylish Academic Writing, ‘Smart Sentencing,’ wherein the five rules are further scaled down to three core principles.
To help us tone our prose, Sword has developed a free, online diagnostic: the WritersDiet Test.3 The colour-coordinated tool, simpler though less nuanced than Wendy Belcher’s similar test designed for ‘microstructure revising,’4 underscores the five rules outlined in this book. By cutting and pasting a 100- to 1000-word prose sample and clicking ‘run the test,’ writers can assess the relative leanness of their text. Sword summarizes how the test and text correlate in her introduction: ‘The test is a blunt instrument; the book coaches you in the complex human art of writing powerful prose’ (3). Each chapter of The Writer’s Diet concludes with a one-page explication of a passage analysed by the WritersDiet Test, wherein Sword convincingly demonstrates that analytic tools based on word frequencies and proportions cannot capture the subtleties of style. (Lest you worry the book is but a promotional vehicle for Sword’s WritersDiet Test, remember that the online diagnostic comes free.)5
Devotees of Strunk and White will feel at home; four of Sword’s five rules in The Writer’s Diet are variations on classic Strunk and White maxims. But Sword’s work inhabits a post–Strunk and White world and thus makes for a fresher read. If the tone of Strunk and White is that of a drill sergeant barking injunctions, Sword is the counselor who knows we’ll feel better if we know we’re making our readers’ lives easier or, yes, even more pleasurable. Sword acknowledges that ‘confident stylists understand the value of flouting the rules...