Helen Sword dispenses with excessive explanations and overwrought analysis. Instead, she offers an easy-to-follow set of writing principles: use active verbs whenever possible; favor concrete language over vague abstractions; avoid long strings of prepositional phrases; employ adjectives and adverbs only when they contribute something new to the meaning of a sentence; and reduce your dependence on four pernicious “waste words”: it, this, that, and there.
Sword then shows the rules in action through examples from William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King Jr., John McPhee, A. S. Byatt, Richard Dawkins, Alison Gopnik, and many more. A writing fitness test encourages you to assess your own writing and get immediate advice on addressing problem areas. While The Writer’s Diet is as sleek and concise as the writing ideals contained within, this slim volume packs a powerful punch.
With Sword’s coaching writers of all levels can strengthen and tone their sentences with the stroke of a pen or the click of a mouse. As with any fitness routine, adhering to the rules requires energy and vigilance. The results, however, will speak for themselves.
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The Writer's Diet
A Guide to Fit Prose
By Helen Sword
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 Helen Sword
All rights reserved.
Key principles in this chapter:
Favor strong, specific, robust action verbs (scrutinize, dissect, recount, capture) over weak, vague, lazy ones (have, do, show).
Limit your use of be-verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been)
Verbs power our sentences as surely as muscles propel our bodies. In fact, a sentence is not technically a sentence unless it contains a verb. Not all verbs pack the same punch, however. Active verbs such as grow, fling and exhale infuse your writing with vigor and metaphorical zing; they put legs on your prose. Forms of the verbs to be – for example is, was, are – do their duty too, but they carry you nowhere new. Think of them as the gluteus maximus of your grammatical anatomy.
It is much easier to write a sentence that is dominated by be-verbs and passive constructions – such as the one you are reading right now – than to summon the energy to construct action-driven prose. After all, why waste time ferreting through your brain in search of varied, vivid verbs if that good old standby is will serve your sentences just as well?
Active verbs merit effort and attention for at least three reasons. First, they supply a sense of agency and urgency to your writing by telling you who did what to whom. A scientist's passive locution, "The research was performed," lacks the honesty and directness of "We performed the research."
Second, active verbs add force and complexity to otherwise static sentences. When you write, "The pandemic swept through South America," you implicitly liken the pandemic's effect to that of a fire sweeping through a forest or a broom sweeping clear a cluttered floor. "The pandemic was very serious" simply doesn't spark our imagination in the same way.
Third, active verbs demand economy and precision, whereas be-verbs invite sloppy syntax. Consider this flaccid sentence by a philosophy student:
What is interesting about viruses is that their genetic stock is very meager.
A light workout – including the addition of a stronger verb and a fresh adverb – renders the sentence at once stronger and livelier:
Viruses originate from a surprisingly meager genetic stock.
In sum, be-verbs function much like equal signs in a mathematical equation; rather than shifting a sentence into new territory, they describe the status quo. In a passive verb construction, a be-verb neutralizes an active verb like a spider trapping a honeybee: "He was startled by the bell"; "Her face was lined with wrinkles." Note how, in these sentences, the action words lose their status as verbs and take on the role of descriptive adjectives (startled, lined) instead.
When used in moderation, there's nothing wrong with be-verbs. We need is in our sentences just as we need starch in our diet and socks in our wardrobe. Forms of be can help us create subtle distinctions of agency, action and tense; for example, "I was made to feel inferior" means something quite different from "She made me feel inferior" or "I felt inferior." Likewise, "He is going shopping" suggests a different temporality than "He goes shopping" or "He shops every day."
Be-verbs become problematic only when we grow lazy: when is and are become the main staples of every sentence simply because we cannot be bothered to vary our verbs. The following excerpt from an undergraduate essay on cinematography offers a case in point:
American Beauty is one of the best films I have ever seen. The Academy gave the movie a "Picture of the Year" award, among other honors. There are many good uses of cinematography throughout the film. I will be describing how cinematography is used to enhance what is happening in that particular scene.
Be-verbs (is, are, be) make up nearly 10% of the words in this passage. Two potentially active verbs, describe and happen, suffer from the weakening addition of -ing, which necessitates an accompanying form of be ("will be describing," "what is happening"). Meanwhile, the only remaining active verbs – see, give, use, enhance – prove so bland and generic that they contribute little more energy than is and are. When we strip away the be-verbs from the final sentence – "I will be describing how cinematography is used to enhance what is happening in that particular scene" – we reveal the core sentence that lurks beneath:
I will describe how cinematography enhances what happens in a particular scene.
This new version retains the meaning of the original, but the word count drops from 17 words to just 12 – a "lard factor" (to borrow a phrase from Richard A. Lanham) of 29%.
Accomplished authors do not ban be-verbs altogether. Instead, they employ them carefully and in moderation, with occasional bursts of strategic excess. For example, the opening sentence of Charles Dickens" A Tale of Two Cities contains the be-verb was a whopping ten times:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair ...
Yet if you look at the pages that follow this be-verb bonanza, you will find that they shimmer with active verbs. Having lulled us into a sense of stasis and sameness with all those abstract was-phrases, Dickens suddenly veers off into a colorful, verb-driven description of pre-Revolutionary France:
France, less favored on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it. Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards.
Rather than telling us directly that the political situation in France was grim, Dickens shows us a misguided nation that "rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill," like a severed head into a basket. Personifying France as a frivolous woman who "entertained herself" by staging events such as the youth's gruesome death – "his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain" – Dickens draws an unspoken parallel to Marie Antoinette, the queen whose luxurious excesses would eventually inspire France's oppressed underclasses to revolt. In both cases, he relies not on overt comparisons – "France was like this or that" – but on active verbs that perform a much more subtle yet dramatic metaphorical function.
The most famous speech in Shakespeare's Hamlet, likewise, kicks off with three be-verbs in a row:
To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Faced with the stark choice between life or death, the tormented Prince Hamlet asks himself:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
The active verbs that animate this sentence – suffer, take arms, oppose – charge the prince's existential musings with a vivid physicality sustained through the rest of the soliloquy:
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
In Hamlet's grim vision of human existence, we must choose between two equally unsavory choices: to "grunt and sweat" and "bear those ills we have," or to leave our physical selves behind and fly to the "undiscover'd country" of death, from which "no traveler returns." Through his use of active verbs, Shakespeare portrays life (to be) as a painful burden and death (not to be) as a frightening journey.
Active verbs fire our imagination by appealing directly to the human senses; they invite us to see, hear, touch, taste and smell objects and ideas, rather than merely letting them be. Craft-conscious writers do not necessarily reach for a thesaurus every time they compose a new sentence. However, they do routinely exercise and stretch their vocabulary, seeking out verbs that convey visual imagery and action.
Observe, for example, the elegance and exactness of the verbs selected by Pulitzer-Prize-winning author John McPhee to describe how shad (a kind of fish) strike at a fisherman's lure:
Flutter something colorful in their faces and shad will either ignore it completely or snap at it like pit bulls. More precisely, they'll swing their heads, as swordfish do, to bat an irritant aside. They don't swallow, since they're not eating. Essentially never does a hook reach the gills, or even much inside the mouth. You hook them in the mouth's outer rim – in the premaxillary and maxillary bones and sometimes in the ethmoid region at the tip of the snout, all of which are segments of the large open scoop that plows through plankton at sea.
Flutter, snap, swing, bat, swallow: every one of these words expresses motion and activity. Note, too, how McPhee paces his verbs. In the first four sentences of the passage, he hurls them at us thick and fast, fluttering action words in our faces like brightly colored lures. In the fifth sentence, however, McPhee withholds his final verb, offering a long string of prepositional phrases – "in the premaxillary and maxillary bones and sometimes in the ethmoid region at the tip of the snout" – before hooking his readers at last with his striking description of the shad's mouth as a "large open scoop that plows through plankton at sea."
Contrast McPhee's verb-driven sentences with the following examples from peer-reviewed scientific journal articles in computer science and evolutionary biology, respectively:
[Computer science] A schema mapping is a specification that describes how data structured under one schema (the source schema) is to be transformed into data structured under a different schema (the target schema). Although the notion of an inverse of a schema mapping is important, the exact definition of an inverse mapping is somewhat elusive.
[Evolutionary biology] Species complexes are composed of genetically isolated lineages that are not distinguishable on the basis of purely morphological criteria. Such difficulties have been encountered in almost all taxonomic groups, even the most studied birds and mammals. ... Detecting the cryptic structure of species complexes is essential for an accurate accounting of the biological diversity in natural systems.
Is, describes, is to be; are, have been, is. Many academics mistakenly believe that such bland, agentless prose expresses scientific ideas more accurately and objectively than the metaphorically rich language of fiction writers and poets. But good writing need not imply bad science:
[Computer science] Either we can scan, or "crawl," the text database or, alternatively, we can exploit search engine indexes and retrieve the documents of interest via carefully crafted queries constructed in task-specific ways. ... Reputation management systems download Web pages to track the "buzz" around companies and products. Comparative shopping agents locate e-commerce Web sites and add the products offered in the pages to their own index.
[Evolutionary biology] Insects suck, chew, parasitize, bore, store, and even cultivate their foods to a highly sophisticated degree of specialization, and much of the evolution of the group appears to be related to the way in which insects interact with their environment by feeding.
In these extracts from journal articles in the same two disciplines as the previous examples, active verbs do much more than merely supply local color to otherwise beige prose. Carefully selected verbs such as scan, crawl, exploit, retrieve, download, track, locate, suck, chew, parasitize, bore, store, cultivate and interact communicate their authors" meaning with scientific rigor and precision.
In the following excerpt from an undergraduate essay on abortion, note how the energy of the opening question dissipates in the second sentence, which is choked with be-verbs:
Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? That is a big question that a lot of Catholics are asked.
With minimal exertion, we can eliminate the two be phrases (that is, are asked) and pump up the power of the verb:
Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? Many Catholics grapple with this difficult question.
Not only have we cut the word count of the second sentence from 12 to 7 – a lard factor of 41% – but our new, improved sentence conveys a sense of mental deliberation and moral struggle absent from the original. The verb grapple supplies a physical metaphor for the otherwise abstract mental process of choosing between two moral positions. And the Catholics have now become the subjects rather than the objects of the sentence, the agents rather than the recipients of the action. We picture them actively engaging with the pro-life/pro-choice question, rather than politely "being asked" to think about it.
Running up a steep incline requires more effort than standing still or walking slowly along a flat surface. Likewise, writing lively sentences requires more effort than relying on forms of be and other bland, abstract verbs. Indeed, one could argue that the laws of physics apply (metaphorically, at least) to grammar as well as to objects. Is equals inertia; and we know from Newton's First Law that a body at rest will remain at rest until acted upon by an external force. By the same token, a stodgy sentence will remain inert until its author exerts the force to rouse it.
The following exercises will stretch and tone your verbal muscles. Feel free to concoct your own variations.
From passive to active
Identify five sentences that employ the passive voice – either in your own writing or in someone else's work – and turn them into active sentences that contain no forms of be. In doing so, you might have to furnish new verbs or even rephrase entire sentences.
Example: The passengers were asked to return to their seats.
Who asked the passengers to return to their seats? To render this sentence active, we need to identify the agent who performs the action. Try out some different possibilities and attend to their nuances:
The flight attendant asked the passengers to return to their seats.
The captain told the passengers to return to their seats.
The voice on the loudspeaker ordered the passengers to return to their seats.
Nearly all good writers employ the passive voice occasionally: for instance, to emphasize the initial noun in a sentence ("His face had been scarred by the experiences of a lifetime"), to avoid an intrusive "I" ("The book and the test have been designed to work together") or to enact a character's powerlessness ("his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, his body burned alive"). But sometimes the mere exercise of shifting to the active voice can lead to unexpected insights. For example, "The students were taught" takes on quite a different meaning when you write instead, "The teacher instructed the students" or "The students learned."
From lazy to lively
Select a short sample of your writing – a paragraph or a page – and identify all the verbs. Once you have eliminated the forms of be, what verbs remain? Many so-called "active" verbs – words like make, do and use – convey no specific sense of action. Can you liven up your prose by replacing bland, predictable verbs with more precise, energetic alternatives?
Example: Many people in Russia have no skills in Internet usage. Those people include the young as well as the older generations.
By the time we have finished reading these opening lines from an undergraduate essay on Internet use in Russia, we are already nodding off. Rather than merely replacing have with possess – the lazy option, rather like substituting utilize for use – let's try lack, a verb that emphasizes absence and deficiency. Next, we can fold the two sentences together:
Many people in Russia – the young as well as the older generations – lack Internet skills.
Why do the Russians lack Internet skills? Will this situation lead to adverse social and educational consequences? The new opening sentence makes us want to keep reading to find out the answers to these questions.
Excerpted from The Writer's Diet by Helen Sword. Copyright © 2016 Helen Sword. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Introduction: The Writer’s Diet
1. Verbal verve
2. Noun density
3. Prepositional pudge
5. Waste words
Afterword: Healthy writing
Appendix: The WritersDiet Test