The Writer’s Diet

By Mark Nichol

How does your writing style rate regarding balanced use (or overuse) of parts of speech? An online test will evaluate your compositions for you.

The writing handbook The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose has a companion website that features not only a blog (and a newsletter you can subscribe to) but also a test that analyzes writing passages. Naturally, I took a test drive (seven test drives, actually).

Choosing some of my favorite essay-type posts on DailyWritingTips.com, I plugged them into the Writer’s Diet Test, which scores content in parts-of-speech categories equivalent to the ones the book’s author, academician Helen Sword, focuses on in the book: verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs, and what she calls “waste words” (it, this, that, and there).

The test scores on a scale labeled in keeping with the health-conscious them: Lean, Fit & Trim, Needs Toning, Flabby, and Heart Attack. One by one, I copied and pasted seven of my posts into the tool and read the results of my writing physical.

I was not surprised to see that for the most part, my writing tended to be at the Lean/Fit & Trim end of the spectrum. (I’ve been writing professionally for four decades, so I’d better be in good shape.) However, four of the seven cumulative scores were in Flabby territory. Why?

My use of nouns was usually restrained, though the test result for one post registered their use as decidedly unhealthy. Apparently, however, I’m living on borrowed time because of an excessive employment of verbs. And though my restraint with prepositions is admirable, and I was generally carefully about not overdoing it with adjectives and adverbs, I did binge once in the latter category. In addition, I was usually pretty good about minimizing the little words that Sword lists as inimical to clear, concise writing, though I had a couple of lapses.

What does this mean? Objectively, it means that I should be more alert to avoiding inserting too many of what Sword calls “academic ad-words”—the adjectives and adverbs ending in -able, -ant, -ary, and the like—that are often used in stodgy scholarly writing. And though I am vigilant about avoiding using expletives (“it is,” “there are,” and so on) and repeating the pronouns it and that, I could do better. And especially, it seems, though I often advocate using vivid verbs and minimizing use of forms of “to be” (is, am, being, and the like), I am remiss in practicing what I preach.

You may, after taking the test, argue that you know you’re a good writer and don’t deserve your check-up to result in admonitions to go on a diction diet. Or perhaps, after you slyly copied and pasted a passage from a Work of Great Literature, you scoffed when Tolstoy or Twain, or Faulkner or Fitzgerald, earned “failing” scores. Sword acknowledges that the test is a “blunt instrument”: Good writing can earn low scores, bad writing can result in a complimentary result, and titans of literature sometimes simultaneously break the rules of composition and produce masterpieces. (Hello, Samuel Beckett.)

Furthermore, the test is not a directive to adopt a prose style of Hemingwayian simplicity. It merely calls attention to areas that may need some attention. Check out the website for an outline of the principles Sword advises that you attend to in order to achieve a lean (or at least fit and trim) compositional composition, or read the book for more details.

Recommended for you: « »



3 Responses to “The Writer’s Diet”

  • venqax

    “Grafs”? Is that British?

    I am WAAAAY out of line on verbs. See? Right there, couldn’t write one sentence without a “to be” verb. I hover way out of line on verbs. I rest way out of line on verbs. I sit way out of line on verbs. I perform way out of line…

  • Marci Lindsay

    No wonder you have too many adverbs – “I was generally carefully” in paragraph 6! There’s one gone! 🙂

  • Bill

    The last two grafs are important reminders not to take evaluation tools like this as the final word on your writing. It’s good to be mindful of habits and to reconsider waste words, but the ultimate test is whether or not people who’ve read your writing want to read more of it.
    I’m wondering, by the way, if you put what you’ve written here through the test.

Leave a comment: