Review: The Writer’s Diet by Helen Sword

Book Cover of The Writer's Diet by Helen Sword

A thin book on how to get your writing from flabby to fit

By Margaret Tang

‘The Writer’s Diet’ is literally a thin book; there are only 77 A5-sized pages. It offers five simple strategies on how to spot flabby writing and rewrite using concise, vivid sentences. It was first published in 2007 by the Auckland University Press. I am reviewing the 2016 edition published by The University of Chicago Press.

Helen Sword is a Professor and the Director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland. Written for students, academics, journalists, and creative writers, her goal is “to help you energize your writing, boost your verbal fitness and strip unnecessary padding from your prose” [I am quoting from her book which is written in American English, hence the spelling difference]. Since it is not a grammar book nor style guide nor writing guide, it does not offer rules for grammar, punctuation, or advice on how to write different types of writing. The book focuses on five common problems found in unnecessarily long and lacklustre sentences and offers these five ways to combat the problems:

  1. Use specific, descriptive verbs and limit be-verbs (is, am, are, be, been, being, was, were).
  2. Choose concrete nouns and don’t turn verbs, adjectives and adverbs into nouns.
  3. Avoid more than three consecutive prepositional phrases.
  4. Limit your use of adverbs and adjectives.
  5. Limit the ‘waste words’: it, this, that, there.

I think the book is good for everyone. Nowadays there is so much to read at work, on the internet, for personal development, from the government and service providers. The list goes on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone wrote in concise, easy-to-understand sentences? Imagine the amount of time and confusion we would save. Sword writes with the type of sentences she proposes so the book is quick and easy to read. Using adequate explanation and examples, Sword effectively demonstrates how sentences can be shortened and invigorated.

You can read the book on its own or use it together with the tool that Sword has created on I tried the tool and found it easy to use. Just cut and paste your text or directly type it in. The tool highlights the problems according to the five writer’s diet rules in five colours and gives your writing a fitness rating from worst to best: heart attack; flabby; needs toning; fit & trim; lean. The tool does not suggest corrections to your prose. Do be very careful about using the tool because it is a very blunt instrument; Nonsensical, disorganised writing can still get a ‘lean’ rating because the five rules were applied. Although the book can be used without the tool, the tool should be used with the book unless you are a seasoned writer.

I highly recommend the book. It offers the fastest way to concise writing. However, keep in mind that observing the writer’s diet rules does not guarantee good writing because other aspects of good writing such as organisation, structure, logic and cohesion are not considered. Also, some types of writing that use more abstract or technical terms such as philosophy and technology will inevitably get flagged for ‘flabby sentences’ using Sword’s rules.

The book can be borrowed from National Library Board, Singapore. Call number: 808.042 SWO

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