Reviewing Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet has probably been one of my biggest challenges.
Not merely because I’m simultaneously comparing my own writing (and nervously wondering if it’s in a permanent coma after numerous linguistic heart attacks) but because I’m engaging in a meta-reading exercise of Sword’s own work.
It’s a great title. Even if you’ve never gone on a diet it’s not hard to imagine the dos and don’ts: cut down the calories and let your taste buds appreciate the heavenly concoctions of smoked salmon, dark chocolate and blueberries – or at least their grammatical equivalents. Sword’s secret is that she uses her extended metaphor throughout this handy little text without walloping you on the head with too many facts and figures.
The book is directed not just at academics (many of whom need a completely new writerly regime anyhow) but poets, fiction writers, journalists, advertorial writers and even real estate agents; especially as most writers will have inevitably dabbled across more than a few genres.
Packed with constructive recommendations to up one’s ‘verbal verve’ lose the ‘ad-dictions’ and downsize the ‘prepositional podge’ it’s an entertaining schedule that addresses some of the problem areas of our writing today. Techniques to develop high ‘noun density’ and curtail ‘waste words’ are also included and each chapter is accompanied with numerous examples and exercises.
Sword’s writing is sharp and cheerful and although wading through any form of regiment isn’t particularly attractive she does manage to keep a sense of humour throughout the text. For example she recommends limiting the use of prepositional phrases but not complete abandonment explaining, “Try writing a preposition-free sentence, like the one you are reading right now, and you will feel handcuffed, shacked, frustrated.” Her visual imagery is accompanied by a knack of reflexive contemplation – before you can point out that Sword might be a guilty of trespassing her own commandments she’s already pointed out that she’s done her homework.
There will be parts of this manual that will be more useful than others (depending on your own writing) and it’s worth knowing that if you do take the writer’s diet online test (up to a 1000 words) you might get a result that could vary between ‘fit and trim’ to ‘heart attack area’. Equally, an article on how baby stingrays appears as stuffed ravioli might have a very different result to a reflective poem on Lion’s Rock out at Piha. It’s a computer generated result not a person so beware and use the results in the most productive manner befitting your text and style.
Handy, easily accessible and although not furnished with the finer details (who needs syntax or morphology anyway) it is a useful manual to remind oneself that diets these days stretch well beyond what’s good for our waistline.