Interview: Helen Sword, Author of The Writer’s Diet

Both a literary scholar and director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland, Professor Helen Sword knows about writing. The scholar, poet and award-winning teacher recently released The Writer’s Diet, a sharp and cheerful guide that will help writers, of all kinds, to write more enticing, more energetic prose. NZ Booklovers recently caught up with Helen about The Writer’s Diet and writing.

What made you want to write a ‘diet’ book?

I use the word ‘diet’ in the sense of ‘eating a healthy diet’, not ‘starving yourself’ – it’s meant to be a positive metaphor, not a negative one. Good writing, like physical fitness, requires an input of high-quality ingredients (good food, good words) and a significant output of energy. The more time you spend editing and honing and polishing your writing, the more your readers will thank you.

Did you ever find yourself questioning whether your own writing was living up to the high standards set out by the diet?

I follow the Writer’s Diet principles fairly religiously in my own writing and frequently run samples of my prose through the online WritersDiet Test at www.writersdiet.com, especially when I’m preparing something for publication. But I don’t worry too much about informal communications such as email. The higher the stakes, the higher my standards – and the more time I spend making sure that my writing lives up to them.

What were some of the challenges in writing this dieting manual?

My biggest challenge was finding a way to convey some key principles of good writing without sounding preachy or prescriptive. That’s why the book focuses on nuances and exceptions as much as on the principles themselves. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a recipe to follow; but at the same time, no writer should be afraid to experiment and play.

You deliberately stayed away from some of the commandments made by other sworn fans of grammar and punctuation, so what made you focus on verbs, nouns, adjectives and prepositions?

There are plenty of excellent writing guides already on the market, including many that deal with punctuation, spelling and grammatical correctness. I was trying to do something different. The Writer’s Diet conveys flexible principles rather than rigid commandments, focusing mainly on verbs, nouns, adjectives/adverbs and prepositions because those are the grammatical building blocks that all writers have to work with. The better we understand our core materials, the stronger our sentences.

For writers who want to step up the intensity what’s next? Do you have a part two in the pipeline?

My book Stylish Academic Writing, published by Harvard University Press in 2012, addresses many other aspects of writing beyond the Writer’s Diet principles: for example, how to engage your readers by using catchy titles, engaging openings, and concrete language. Now I’m working on a book about the human side of scholarly writing: how academics learn to write; how they find time to write; how they feel about their writing. So I guess you’d call that Part Three!

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Dione is an Auckland based theatre director and writer with background in performance and community & cultural development. She works as a freelance arts journalist, guest lecturer and creative advisor on a range of different projects both in New Zealand and internationally. She is primarily a non-fiction reviewer who adores travelogues, history, memoirs and creative cooking texts. Read more at www.dionejoseph.com

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