Words when chosen wisely, have profound impact and can lead to authentic insights—yet prose just as easily lends itself to pointless rant and even diatribe should we write without restraint. Of course, the extreme opposite of this is also subject to imprecise drivel—texting with auto-correct for one, and writing with emoji’s rather than letters for another. But like an athlete, writers can sharpen their skills and transform their words into lean, mean(ingful) tools of exploration, expression and even persuasion. We asked locution expert and author of ‘The Writer’s Diet’, Helen Sword, to reveal how.
Like any guide to diet and fitness, The Writer’s Diet offers advice and exercises designed to help you become stronger and leaner without sacrificing your pleasure and well-being. Here, however, the focus is on your sentences, not your body. Just as athletes build up their strength and agility by eating nutritious food and performing targeted exercises, good writers build strong sentences by nourishing them with high-quality ingredients and then putting them through a workout.
A core feature of the book is the WritersDiet Test, a diagnostic exercise that you can perform manually using paper and coloured pencils or electronically via the Writer’s Diet website (www.writersdiet.com). Simply cut and paste a passage of between 100 and 1,000 words into the online text box, click the Run the Test button and find out whether your writing sample is ‘flabby or fit’. Whatever your diagnosis, I advise you take the test with a sense of humour and a grain of salt: it offers recommendations, not a prescription; a set of core principles, not a one-size-fits-all formula. Remember, too, that the online test is intended to supplement the book, not to replace it. The book explores all the stylistic subtleties and exceptions that the test cannot.
Chapter One, ‘Verbal verve’, focuses on verbs, which power our sentences as surely as muscles propel our bodies. Robust action verbs infuse your writing with vigour and metaphorical zing; they put legs on your prose. As a rule of thumb, I like to make sure that every paragraph I write contains at least two or three vivid verbs (here, I’ve used power, propel and infuse) to move things along.
If verbs function as the muscles of language, nouns are its bones. Chapter Two, ‘Noun density’, teaches you to anchor complex ideas in concrete nouns. Sentences with ‘strong bones’ convey meaning and emotion through objects that we can visualise: muscles and bones. Sentences with ‘weak bones’ rely mostly on abstract nouns, which express intangible ideas remote from the world of the human senses. In particular, I caution readers against lumbering multi-syllabic monsters that I call ‘zombie nouns’, which can suck the life-blood and energy from your prose.
The remaining chapters of the book explore how other types of words can help or hinder clear communication. For example, prepositions supply our sentences with directional thrust; when used in excess, however, they can slow things down instead. Adjectives and adverbs lend colour and flavour to our writing, but they may also end up sugar-coating weak sentences that would benefit from more active verbs and concrete nouns. And the four little inkblots that I call the ‘waste words’—it, this, that and there—can clog up your prose as surely as cholesterol clogs your arteries.
I wrote The Writer’s Diet because I got tired of reading long-winded, stodgy sentences that I had to work hard to decipher. Whether you write for a general audience or a highly specialised one, this book can help you do so more clearly, energetically and persuasively—with sleek prose your readers will remember.