Monday, February 18, 2013

The Writer's Diet

A non-lawyer friend of mine often jokes that a lawyer is the only person who will use forty words when four will suffice. Helen Sword, a professor at the University of Auckland, might agree. She has developed the Writer’s Diet Test to help you “energize your writing and strip unnecessary padding from your prose.”

What does the test do?
The Writer’s Diet works with an algorithmic program that scores writing on the scale of “Fit” to “Heart Attack.” Professor Sword notes that the test uses “algorithms based on more than 1,000 writing samples—a process of informed evaluation based on extensive reading, rhetorical analysis, intuition, and, yes, a dollop of subjectivity.”

Each of the grammatical categories are rated with one of the following ratings:
  • Lean: fat-free prose
  • Fit & trim: in excellent condition 
  • Needs toning: Would benefit from a light workout
  • Flabby: 
  • Heart attack: May call for editorial liposuction! 

The test also provides an in-depth analysis of your writing sample. Words that fit in any of the grammatical categories are highlighted to give you an idea of how frequently you rely on them.
I tried it out on a section of Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) the result being “heart attack territory.” The dissent could apparently benefit from some exercise overall, but specifically in the overuse of nominalizations long, important-sounding nouns formed from verbs or adjectives), and the words “it,” “this,” “that,” and “there.”

The tool is not designed to tell you if your writing is good. Good writing, as Helen Sword notes on The Writer's DietFAQ site, can use all of the elements tagged in the tool and can use them well. But often, too many abstractions and passive constructions lead to some mighty snooze-worthy prose.

Users might find a bone to pick with Sword's categories, which employ flawed assumptions about health and dubious one-size-fits all beauty and ability norms. However, don't let any offense here prevent you from exploring her tool--you may find it invaluable when it comes time to edit.

Check out the Writer’s Diet Testand see how your writing shapes up!

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