Helen Sword’s ‘The Writer’s Diet’ is a compact booklet that offers concise guidance on writing clear and tight prose. Like many of Sword’s other works on writing (‘Stylish Academic Writing’, ‘Air & Light & Time & Space) her advice feels aimed primarily at academics, but there is a wealth of knowledge in this book that I think will be helpful to fiction writers and poets also.
Sword sets out five writing principles that she believes improve the ‘fitness’ of our prose writing:
(1) Use active words wherever possible, that is, favour specific, robust action words (scrutinize, dissect, recount, capture) over weak, vague, lazy ones (have, is, show). Whilst Sword suggests that we use active words she also argues that we limit our use of be-verbs (is, an, are, was, were, be, being, been).
(2) Favour concrete language over vague abstractions, ‘show, don’t tell’, limit abstract nouns, especially nominalisations (nouns formed from verbs, adjectives, and other nouns).
(3) Avoid long strings of prepositional phrases, i.e. in a letter to the author of a book about birds, vary prepositions- do not allow a noun and its accompanying verb to be separated by more than twelve words.
(4) Employ adjectives and adverbs only when they contribute something new to the meaning of the sentence, let concrete nouns and verbs talk, avoid academic ad-words (able, ac, al, ant, ary, ent, ible, ic, ive, less).
(5) Reduce your dependence on four pernicious waste words: is, this, that, and there. Using them only when you can state which noun each word refers to, and avoid more than one in a sentence.
Sword supports the principles she lays out by exploring the work of William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, John McPhee, Richard Dawkins, Alison Gopnik, and others. I think Sword’s decision to draw on a diverse range of writers helps to illustrate just how effective the principles are in different forms and styles of writing and how they have remained successful for centuries. However, I wonder if some readers who are more familiar with contemporary writing and writers might not connect with examples of, for instance, Shakespeare’s work, where the meaning of an expression may not be immediately clear.
Sword’s ‘The Writer’s Diet’ follows a similar message to George Orwell and writing style guide authors E.B White and William Strunk Jnr., which is, to keep your writing simple. In my vain attempt to improve my writing I have read several writing style guides and often trick myself into thinking I’ve been working hard on the craft of writing by having simply read them. Sword’s inclusion of writing tests at the end of each section encouraged me to actually apply her principles to my writing rather than skim read and forget them.
‘The Writer’s Diet’ is an excellent introductory guide to writing lean prose. Whenever I feel like my sentences need a trim somewhere I return to Sword’s work to remind myself of how I should do it.
© 2020 Nic James
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Nic James thinks too much and always talks over movies.