The term “lean writing style” is not new to literary criticism. Dashiell Hammett is the American writer most cited as the master of it.
However, the recent spate of how-to articles urging writers of all genres to hone a “lean writing style” may have more to do with the world of computing than with literature.
The “lean writing” ideal seems to have crossed over from “Agile Software Development,” a set of principles intended to maximize a product’s value to the user and to minimize waste during production. As even the “friendliest” software requires some measure of documentation for the user, Agile principles include writing guidelines.
Cherryleaf, a company that offers instruction in technical writing, advises writers to think of copy as part of the product. In this context, writing must be free of “non-value-adding waste.”
What, in terms of the written word, is “non-value-adding waste”?
According to the people who create algorithms to flag verbal jetsam, the usual suspects are these:
Verbs such as to be, have, do, show, seem, and other such lazy, vague layabouts.
Abstract nouns, especially nominalized verbs.
Pronouns like it, that, and this that don’t have clear antecedents.
Sentences that begin with there.
Thanks to the work of Professor Helen Sword, a literary scholar interested in improving the readability of academic writing, writers can test their writing for verbal “waste” with an online tool. Based on Sword’s book The Writer’s Diet, the test will process an excerpt of 100—1,000 words and give a diagnosis of the writing’s “fitness.”
Results of the analysis are labeled in terms of cardio fitness:
FIT & TRIM
Note to educators: The only sample I tested that earned the “heart attack” diagnosis was a school mission statement.
In the context of literary writing—as opposed to “product writing”—the notion of words as ” non-value-adding waste” is rather like the gardener’s definition of a weed: “a plant growing where you don’t want it.”
If you decide to try The Writer’s Diet Test on a sample of your own writing, keep in mind that the test’s purpose is not to evaluate writing in terms of quality. An algorithm cannot do that.
Such things as pronouns without antecedents have no place in clear writing, but as for prepositional phrases and adverbs, the most important criteria for a writer’s stylistic choices remain the writer’s purpose and intended reader.