Transform your prose from flabby to fit
The Writer's Diet—a book and companion website—won't spiff up your prose for you, but it will point you toward the flaws that can make writing dull and stodgy.
Helen Sword wrote the book and developed the Writer's Diet Test after noting the uneven quality of writing by students and academicians. A professor with a PhD from Princeton in Comparative Literature, she takes aim at zombie nouns, prepositional podge, waste words, and more.
This brief writer's guide is a favorite of mine. Listen to this episode to learn about five common trouble spots in writing, how to spot them in your own prose, and what you can do to fix them.
Not everyone has a zombie video to their credit!
Links and Stuff (scroll down for a transcript of our interview)
The Writer's Diet website
Books by Helen Sword:
Other books mentioned:
Joseph F. Williams' Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace
William Zinsser's On Writing Well
Transcript of our interview with Helen Sword
Amy: 00:09 I love reading writing guides and you have such an interesting take on what you've done. But first, could you start by telling the listeners a little bit about your background and why you've decided to make a specialty out of helping people improve their writing?
Helen Sword: 00:25 Sure. Well, I started out as a literary scholar. I have a PhD in comparative literature, taught in an English department for long time and still do a little bit. But at some point I moved into working in faculty development, which is more working with academics to try to improve their teaching and that meant that I started reading research also in, in higher education as well as in literary studies. And I think that made me really aware of the different kinds of writing styles that people use in these different academic disciplines. And it made me really start thinking about why white people didn't communicate more clearly. I guess I'm at the same time. I was also, as always teaching students, reading colleagues work, doing my own writing. And so my first book on, on writing the writer's style really kind of came out of that work.
Helen Sword: 01:26 I was just trying to figure out how to help people write better sentences, was what it came down to. And one of the things that I observed was that as people spent longer in school, particularly like advanced undergraduates and people just starting Grad school, the writing often got worse rather than better, you know, there's sentences got longer and longer and the words got more and more sort of jargon-y. They’re praised for doing that because that is kind of the secret handshake into the discipline in some instances. And so I was just trying to show that you can say the same things often in about 60 percent of the words. I'm not the first person who has done this, but with the writer's style that I developed a particular algorithm to help people see if, as I put it, they're writing is sloppy or fit.
Helen Sword: 02:22 Or you could just say kind of soggy, sharp, you know, different ways of different metaphors you could use on that and then really give some quite clear principles, not rules but principles for writing, clearer, sharper, more energetic sentences. And then that work led me to looking more broadly at academic writing, research, writing and all the different disciplines and John was that people write in. So that led to my book Stylish Academic Writing, where I just trying to distill the principles used by the best writers to try to kind of jolly along those who had fallen into the, into this trap of the long winded boggy prose. Show them how to get out of that by telling stories, by having introductions that make people actually want to keep reading, writing stronger sentences, all that sort of thing. And then working on that book meant that I started running lots of writing workshops for academics.
Helen Sword: 03:31 So both for faculty but also often graduate students. And then I started hearing about all the human problems involved in writing. You know, the lack of time, lack of confidence, power struggles. Like when you're trying to write a really interesting first person narrative in your thesis, advisor says, no, that's not what we do in this discipline, even though sometimes it is what other people do in the discipline, but the gatekeepers can be really conservative. So that led to my most recent book, which is called Air and Light and Time and Space. How successful academic right now, both of those last two books have the word academic in them, but I really want to emphasize that they're not just for academic writers. I think the kinds of people who listened to your podcast, who are writing histories, family histories, that sort of thing. I'm pretty much all of the same principles apply.
Helen Sword: 04:32 People who have moved into historical writing are somewhat less likely to have fallen into these particular traps, but they still can. And, and I think some of the, a lot of the ideas and the information and the research and these books could be really helpful to them as well. So the most recent book is much more about writing habits. How people learn to write in these different genres, how they make time for writing and how they feel about the writing. There's a whole section on the emotions involved in academic writing. So, for that book I established a kind of rubric. Again, like the writer style. You can find it online and I can tell you more about that if you like that. Again, I think this is applicable not just for writers but for people to just about anything, whether it's learning a sport or becoming better at art or music, but I've found that it's not just about behavioral habits.
Helen Sword: 05:32 You know, you can read these advice things that tell you should wake up every morning at 5:00 and write for two hours every day and that will make you the perfect prolific writer. Well, if you really hate doing it and you feel incompetent at it, you probably won't keep doing that for very long because there are lots of other things that go into a productive writing practice. So I talk in that book about what I call the writing base, which looks at the behavioral aspects of writing that also the artisanal aspects. So that's the craftsmanship because I see writing as an artist and like activity, but then also the social aspects. So that's getting feedback from others, being part of a community of writers, not just trying to do it all in solitude. And then the fourth aspect of this writing base is the emotional side of writing.
Helen Sword: 06:25 And that's what my, what my next book is going to be on. It's called writing with pleasure because what I found was that the most successful writers come to the writing with some kind of deep well of desire and passion and pleasure that gets them through all the frustrations, gets them through the fact that writing can be hard and slow. And yet there's very little written about this. A lot of the productivity literature is much more, you know, crack the whip just right. This is not a real writer or, or if you think that you need to have a nice room with a beautiful view, you know, you're just looking for excuses and you know, when it comes down to it, if you give me a choice between writing in an unheated basement while I'm feeling really stressed and agonized and writing in a nice light filled space when I'm feeling good about myself and good about my writing, I would take the latter.
Helen Sword: 07:30 I would recommend it to anybody else. So the book is trying to help writers find that air and light and time and space metaphorically as well as you know, in, in the actual world. So lots and lots of different aspects of writing. Each one seems to lead onto another, but I'll say one more thing and then I'll let you pop in. But that's my topic I'm working on now. Right with pleasure. I think actually feeds right back into all three of those books. I think the craft of writing a really great kick ass sentence is a deeply pleasurable activity or should be. I think that learning to write stylishly, means learning to communicate with your audience in the most effective way and there's a real pleasure that comes from doing that and from having people respond and really get what you're trying to do. And then of course the pleasure is an important part of all the kind of behavioral and habit aspects of writing as well. Right. Well, and I think probably for a lot of people who do live story books, you know, there's, you were talking about the artist side of things and that's pretty much what I want to focus on mostly because we don't have the option of writing or not writing. If you're, if you're not writing then you're not making living doing this.
Amy: 08:56 So you have to have been the chair. Do you have to get the job done? whether it's pleasurable or not that you know, that at least for me it depends on the day. It depends on what section of a book I'm working on and I would absolutely love to have a little bit more insight into what can make that happen, you know, on a more consistent basis where it is a pleasurable exercise. But what I, what I really wanted to talk about was because so many people come into this, people are drawn into this industry for various reasons, but something that I hear all the time from listeners is that they want to come into this industry because they want to listen to people's stories. They want to help them get their stories recorded and help them share them with their families. And so they're not necessarily.
Amy: 09:43 Some people are writers and some people are not, but they're not necessarily focused entirely on, you know, building super strong writing skills. and I think, or the flip side is that maybe they're feeling a little bit weak with their writing skills, but they still know that they want to do this and they still know that they, they can help people. So I think that's why I was so drawn to your first book, The Writer’s Diet: A guide to fit prose. Besides all of the good information that you gave, I absolutely love your writing style. I mean it's just very tricky and it can be funny and you use, you know, you talk about helping academics, but you have examples from Shakespeare and you know, classic literature, all kinds of great examples, but the, the promise that you make to your readers in that book, and here I'm going to read it, you say this book will help you energize your writing, boost your verbal fitness and strip unnecessary padding from your prose.
Amy: 10:43 And then you go on and you give very concrete ways of helping writers do that. So that's what I would like to address in greater detail by know, it's not your latest book. I know it's your first one, but I think it's something that can really help life story writers out there just with the Zombie nouns, propositional package. There's some very specific ways that you steer people towards improving their writing. So can you give us just a brief overview of the main topics and then I'd like to talk a little bit in more detail about each of them.
Helen Sword: 11:16 Yes, absolutely. And it all comes back to the same stuff. You know, I wandered far away from style as I talk to writers and yet in the end it's all about sentences. And I, I like to think of sentences as being the bricks and mortar of building your, your house, of writing, building, whatever it is that you're producing. You just are not going to do it. If you go out in the backyard and take a few handfuls of mud and sit them in the sun to dry for a bit and then start building your house, you know, it's all going to collapse. I'm sentences are like bricks that need to be shaped and set and fired and really worked. That's how you're going to get that strength. That's a different metaphor from the Diet and fitness metaphor, but I think, I think they're both quite powerful.
Helen Sword: 12:09 The Diet and fitness metaphor, what I really had in mind, there was not so much diet as in not eating. I had in mind diet as an eating well, and so the metaphor that I use there is that we all know that in order to be fit, physically fit, you've got to do two things. You've got to eat good food and you've got to exercise and I think sentences are exactly the same. You've got to fill them with good words and then you've got to put them through their paces and that often means working them again and again and again. For me, a sentence is never ever finished. And I think some writers might find that kind of disconcerting. Even a quite skilled writer will still be tinkering up till the last minute. But for me, it's helpful to link that craft back to the pleasure.
Helen Sword: 13:07 Again, if you are wrestling with any media, whether it's clay or would you know anybody, any crafts person is, has got to love the medium and not allow themselves to be frustrated by the medium. So, you know, when you talk about getting through those hard days and those days where you just don't want to be doing it, I'm, one of the things I always try to do is to just remind myself why I'm there in the first place, which is a real love for the medium of language and for the communication that it can do, have these ideas or in the cases that you're talking about these, these stories, but every single sentence is a story in microcosm. And so that gets us down to the nitty gritty of how sentences work. I'm in the writer's style. I have five main chapters. One looks at nouns, one looks at verbs, one looks at adjectives and adverbs, one looks at prepositions, and then the last one's kind of grab bag of categories, that I call called the waste words.
Helen Sword: 14:12 But it's four words that don't necessarily have anything grammatically in common, but they often tend to end up in sentences together. And when you see a lot of them congregating together, the sentences may end up being a bit long. And then we'll do use. So those are the words, it, this, that and there, and I talked to them about each of those in turn in the book. But really if I had to boil, boil it down to just two things that would be nouns and verbs. And if I had to boil it down to just one principal, it would be the principal of concreteness of concrete language. Nouns can be concrete or abstract. Verbs can be concrete or abstract, even adjectives and prepositions for that matter can be concrete or abstract. So understanding the distinction is just absolutely key to understanding how a sentence works. There's a, I don't know if you've seen the youtube video on the Ted Ed site, but, there's a hilarious video that was made from an article that I wrote about Zombie nouns in the New York Times. And that kind of animates, shows you what they are and how they work. But zombie nouns is just the phrase that I use to describe nominalizations, which is such an unwieldy word that I have trouble even saying it.
Amy: 15:50 So I'm going to jump in there for a second. Nominalization. Did you come up with that word because it's, it's brilliantly funny. I mean, because it is what you are telling people not to do.
Helen Sword: 16:04 It is a nominalization, but no, I didn't come up with it. It's a grammatical term. You can find it in the dictionary. I think it was some of the best writing about nominalizations is in Joseph Williams. Really Fabulous. It's classic book: Style: Lessons in clarity and grace, and any of your listeners who don't already know that book should raise that and buy it. It's been around for decades, but it's a, it's really a great book on how sentences work. So in some ways, I'm not saying anything that, that he doesn't say or the William Zinsser doesn't say in, in his book, On Writing Well. Well, but it seems to be a lesson that needs to be repeated over and over again. Partly because so many people have not ever been taught to recognize nominalizations or to understand what they're doing.
Amy: 17:00 So the fact is, I mean you're. You're citing some really good, prestigious. I'm writing books, but the fact is that I'm. I have it in front of me, The Writer's Diet, and I've read William Zinsser. I haven't read the first guy that you were talking about, although I have a note to do so
Amy: 17:15 because you mentioned him in your book, but you've done it in 73 pages and you've done it very, very clearly in, you know, you're talking about using concrete now and said, I'm staying away from abstractions. You, you give app, you give exercises, you give ways of testing, like taking something that a writer is already written and seeing where the tweaks need to happen and I think that's something that's so important for people who maybe are new to the craft of writing and they haven't read tons and tons craft books. This is such a good primer to get started with. So I, I interrupted you there, but if you could tell people what a nominalization is and in my mind I'm going to let you describe what it is, but in my mind sometimes we just like academics try to write smart and I think that's when things like nominalizations creep in and it's, you know, masking maybe some inexperience and if you want to get into the psychology of it, I think it's probably the fear of coming across as not being a good writer. So we tried to spruce things up and that's where we go wrong.
Helen Sword: 18:27 Yeah. And sometimes we get a lot of that same kind of language in bureaucratic prose, in all kinds of different places. And sometimes it's just easier. It's easier to come up with a nominalization followed by a weak verb followed by something like is or shows or you know, sort of what I call the usual suspects. rather than to find a verb that really has a lot of energy and uniqueness to it, which really is the key even more than nouns. But what a nominalization is. it's a, an abstract noun by definition. All nominalizations are abstract, it's an abstract noun that has been created from other parts of speech, so usually either a verb or an adjective, occasionally another noun even. So a nominalization itself. It comes from, well, the in French nom is is a name, but it's also a noun, right? So nominal.
Helen Sword: 19:37 One meaning of nominal is having to do with nouns, so that's already an adjective, a descriptive word that's been formed from a noun. So the noun or noun becomes the adjective having to do with nouns, nominal. And then you can turn that into a verb to nominalize. So if you take a noun and you turn it into a verb, you have nominalized. It. Nominalization takes the final step of turning it into a noun by adding one of these endings. Like in this case t I o n. So a nominalization is a noun that has been created from other parts of speech and nominalization as a process is a way of describing the process of creating nouns from other parts of speech. So it's quite a. it's, it's a big word that's describing a complex process, but the beauty of it, as you said, is that it's a word that enacts would.
Helen Sword: 20:39 It describes a nominalization is a nominalization that has undergone nominalization. So what's wrong with nominalizations? Well, nothing at all. We use them all the time. We need them. We need to abstract language in order to communicate it. That ideas. So the word education is a nominalization. Does that mean that we shouldn't use it? Of course not. It's very useful to be able to talk about education, but a writer who is using the word education in every sentence, sometimes more than once. I might want to think about the verb that it came from educate, which has a kind of energy to it that education doesn't have education or any abstract noun is something that we can conceptualize. We can talk about it right at that edge, but we cannot visualize it. We cannot touch it and that's the problem really with abstract nouns in general, but nominalizations just seem to be a version of them that were especially drawn towards an English for whatever reason and that are easily minimized by if you become aware that you used in a lot of nominalizations, you can just look at them and say, okay, what if I take half of these and release?
Helen Sword: 22:06 So word that's hiding inside there? So what a past. The Times I say education, I try to talk about educating and educate and maybe that will actually get me thinking about where it's like teaching and learning so that I have a bit more variety in my vocabulary, you know, so it's just a way of doing that. But the greater issue of abstract versus concrete nouns is just so important to think about because I've read academic articles where people use six, seven, eight, nine abstract nouns in a sentence. Sometimes just in the title, you know, a reflection on the normalization of the this, the, that you know, and it's just this big string of these saints. Lots of examples in the book of real world writing that does these things and not just from the academic sphere. So, the, the problem with that kind of writing is that the reader can visualize anything and so they just get lost.
Helen Sword: 23:13 So in the zombie nouns video, I take a sentence that has a bunch of nominalizations in it and I cut it down to just one, so because it's an active sentence in which the one abstract term is really foregrounded and you can see what it means and you can see why it's being used instead of being in there with, with all these others. So just think it's such. I mean it seems like this kind of dry concept, why should I have to learn this? But it's like learning how to hit your nail with your hammer. If you haven't learned some of these really basic things about how a sentence works, you're going to be building them the much more hit and miss way. So my, my kind of rule of thumb is to make sure even when I'm doing or I would say especially when I'm writing about quite abstract things to make sure that in every paragraph, if not in every single sentence, I've got some concrete nouns and congregate nouns are things that exist in the world that you can visualize, that you can perceive with the senses. So you know, in family writing, historical writing, you've got an advantage that you're writing about real people in the world and yet it can be really easy to start talking about them in more abstract ways by letting these zombie nouns creep in there.
Amy: 24:48 Exactly. And that's always a danger with zombie nouns and with other ways of having the, the prose go a little bit lifeless because generally we're going out, we're interviewing the storyteller and then we are reshaping the storytellers words to put down onto the page or you know, maybe doing some editing for videos or are probably less so with audio. But definitely for the written format. We're taking a transcript and those words have a way of getting stuck in your head. And sometimes you, it's hard to see beyond the way that they have expressed something and you and I both know the way we express things in speech is not how we want to be reading things on the paper and, and so the challenge is probably a little bit different from an academic trying to write in a lively manner, but it's still a challenge because, because we're trying to reshape what somebody else has said and so if, especially if you haven't really studied the craft of writing so much to be able to hear something like nominalizations, you're going to be much more aware of what you're seeing on the paper. And especially for nominalizations because they have a few different word endings, right? I mean the words that end in men and yeah. So M, e n, t a, T I o n or ion, right. So, so those are visual clues that we can see on the paper and that we can, that can alert us like, hey, maybe we need to
Helen Sword: 26:22 better website the writers start
Amy: 26:25 I have. And that's something that. Yes, I know. Let's, let's, let's talk about one or two of the other things and then I definitely want to talk about the website because it's such a good tool for us so listeners are just going to have to wait and wait until the end and then we're going to talk about it, but. So I'm jumping around in the book a little bit, but one thing we all, you know, we have definitely heard to use strong verbs and a concrete nouns, but something that you brought up that I had never really heard of before is that there's different qualities to different prepositions and you also give a few rules and I'm sure that these rules are meant to be broken if the need arises. But. So I'm, I'm reading from your book again, avoid using more than three prepositional phrases in a row. That's something that as readers we can all understand. We can all intuit when somebodies piling on prepositional phrase after propositional phrase and we'll probably lose interest, but it might not necessarily be something that we consciously understand and can apply to our own writing. So I, I so appreciate that. You just
Amy: 27:34 putting a, putting a number on it, and then the other thing that you say is do not allow a noun and its accompanying verb to become separated by more than about 12 words. That's brilliant. You're telling us 12, you know, it's not, it's not the kind of advice that I've seen before and it's just, it's so exciting to be able to have something that you can just in a very practical way apply to your own writing. So and. But the thing that I started talking about was you, you, you mentioned that some propositions are just a little zippier than others. Can you talk about that?
Helen Sword: 28:09 So I have some examples in the book of people who use a lot of prepositions in a sentence because they're physically taking us someplace. So if you're describing somebody who walks through the garden into the shed, behind the lawn mower, into the pool of darkness, you know, you're, you're breaking the three preposition. I don't call it a rule, but a rule of thumb. It's kind of like good one to stick to unless you have a really good, clearly defined stylistic reasons for doing otherwise, but if you are somebody who's trying to kind of pull out the suspense of that movement through the space back behind around, then you're using those prepositions really, really well and really effectively, but often we're using them just to hook a bunch of, in many cases, abstract nouns together, a demonstration of the efficacy of the practice of, you know, these sorts of things where it's,
Amy: 29:22 oh, that rolls right off your tongue.
Helen Sword: 29:24 I actually think it's easier to write this kind of soggy buggy prose than it is to write tight sippy pro. Some people are fortunate and they just seem to have been born with that gene or they've been trained into it. But I find, I once a paper in which I was kind of parodying prose that broke all of these rules and I found it dead easy. It was way, way easier than trying to find the concrete language and what I call the fresh unusual for. So prepositions, there's, I would say for most writers, prepositions are not a big issue and yet what I do with all in all five categories as I do put numbers on things and I basically say if you're going over this percentage of prepositions in your prose, you might want to think about that. You probably want to make sure you have a good reason for doing that.
Helen Sword: 30:26 And if you do, you know, if you're able to articulate well, I'm using all those propositions because I'm walking us through landscape. Getting us to a particular place and the prepositions helped me draw the suspense. Then great. Ignore the principles. But if you're just piling them on because somehow you haven't figured out how to get to the end of your sentence. That's one where you need to go back or it would be a good idea to go back and have a look and think about the work that each of those prepositions is doing. And as with I think any part of speech varieties part of it as well. So you can. You can start to see if you use the same five or six prepositions over and over again. If you are, then that writing will be much more monotonous than if you're. If you're using quite varied ones that really are taking us spatially or prepositions are connecting words and if you're using prepositions consciously and imaginatively, then there's gonna be some variety and some interest in the way that you're doing it. So I would put. I would put thinking about prepositions as being, you know, kind of at the nerdy and the specialist end of, of thinking about how to craft a strong sentence.
Amy: 31:43 I think you just called me. It's funny because this has become a favorite book. This, the writers your yearbook because of the content and because of your writing style. Another one that I have sitting on my desk right now, his sister Bernadette sparking dog, which is all about diagramming sentences. Something I love, but it's also, you know, it's, it's using grammar to serve, to serve a bigger purpose which is writing sentences that convey meaning in a, in a pleasurable way to read. Okay. So we're getting a little bit close to the end. So I do. I, I wanted to go through more of your, your rules of thumb, but I think people are just going to have to go out and buy the book themselves because I do want to give you the chance to talk about the website and that website.
Helen Sword: 32:35 The very beginning when I started working on the rider stud, I thought, well, if I'm using kind of going to the gym analogy and let's say you're going to the gym because you want to start a personal training routine to get stronger and fitter. Your personal trainer is going to get out the calipers to measure the fat on your arm and they're going to make you. Do you know the treadmill tests? They're going to put you through your paces and they're going to say, here are some things where you really could could improve or where we'd like to see the numbers change and that will indicate your fitness stuff. So I just thought, I wonder if it's. Is it possible to do that with some of these grammatical and syntactical principles? In a way that's not saying you must do this, and I think this is really important, the writer's style test you, you copy in between 100 and a thousand words and you click this button.
Helen Sword: 33:38 This is at writersdiet.com. You click the run the test button and then you get this diagnosis of whether your sample. I won't say your writing and it's certainly not you. It's just the sample that you've put in whether it is so I say flabby or fit. Now I'm working on a version of this right now that is actually going to be a plugin that you can run in Microsoft word on your own machine or in the cloud. That will allow you to look at an entire document of whatever length and not just something up to a thousand words. It's turning out to be quite complicated to program, but we will get there eventually and as part of that, I'm going to have some customization options. So anybody who doesn't like the words flabby and fit can rename it to red and green. You know, or whatever they want to apples and oranges, but they at the idea of it all, it's showing you when it puts you over from lean and fit into needs, toning or flabby or the most dire emergency category is heart attack.
Helen Sword: 34:51 All it's saying is that you've got a lot of words in that category, a high percentage higher than we would expect somebody writing vigorous prose to have and you really should go and have a look and think about why. Again, if you're doing it consciously for repetition or because you need to use a certain word over and over or for a stylistic effect, then you ignore the results and you'd go on with what you're doing. But for most people it shows them things that they aren't aware of. So with the nominalizations for example, if you get a reading of a heart attack, I think it's showing you that six percent or more of the words your sample are nominalizations and it's just saying, you know, that's kind of dangerous zone. You may be losing your breeders because if you have that much, that many zombie nouns, you probably have a whole bunch of other abstract nouns that aren't even getting you know that the that the algorithm won't find because it's only looking for certain word endings.
Helen Sword: 35:57 And if you have all that abstract language, you probably don't have very much concrete language. So the way it's working is it's an algorithm. It's doing is counting you, put in your words, it spits out a result and we all love algorithm thinking because you know you push a button and you get an answer, but what it's trying to teach you is what I would call her ristick thinking, which is thinking in terms of principles rather than rules. So that's where you can see the principle is that if you have too many prepositions, your sentences are probably quite long and stringing together a whole lot of nouns and you may be losing your reader. But the heuristic is saying, oh, but if I understand how prepositions work and what the different effects are, then I can make my own choices based on what the algorithm is telling me.
Helen Sword: 36:50 It's just giving me a very simple diagnosis and now I take that diagnosis and I, the human being with a brain, you know, look at, look at my writing with new eyes and, and think about how to improve it. So, you know, I do get comments every now and then from people. I'm usually undergraduates, often undergraduates for whom English is not their first language. Saying this tool doesn't fix my writing. It doesn't tell me what's wrong. It tells me all these that I have to get rid of all these words. Well, it's not telling you that at all. It's just saying you've got a lot of words in this particular category. So the nouns category, all it's looking at our nominalizations. So that is nouns with anyone of seven word endings and both the book and the website will tell you what they are, but we'll tell you how to identify them yourself.
Helen Sword: 37:49 And you can even do the whole thing with just the book by counting and color coding. It tells you how to do that in the back. So it's giving you a formula but it's not meant to be a formula that any thinking person is going to, you know, Kowtow to and, and follow without thinking about it. Quite the opposite. But it's data that can shed a light on problems that you might not be seeing yourself. So like you said, it's not, it's a diagnostic tool and you can do what you want with the results, but it can definitely show us where we are falling down when we don't realize it. And I think that's the beauty of it because it, it can really, it can eliminate some things that you didn't understand about your own writing. I follow those principles myself very rigorously, but I can also tell when I'm moving away from them and it's often when I'm doing a certain kind of academic writing.
Helen Sword: 38:47 Like writing an abstract often is quite abstract and I'll, I can, I can start to feel that I don't have great verbs in there. And then I've got an awful lot of these, the zombie nouns, you know, more than I would like to. And if I start to feel that I can almost always put that segment through the test and Yep, sure enough it will have gone over over the line. Now having said that, it doesn't tell you whether your writing is good or bad. it doesn't even tell you whether it's interesting or boring. It's just looking for characteristics of sentences. Set tend to be types of words that tend to be associated with a certain kind of foggy longwinded prose. That's all it's doing. But that turns out to be quite a helpful thing to have a mechanism to do. Because what I used to do before I developed it is I would hand back students' papers or sometimes colleagues draft articles or whatever and I'd say go through circle all of the forms of the word to be.
Helen Sword: 40:02 So that's: is, was, were, all of those verb forms and get rid of half of them, which was a pretty, a pretty random, you know, pretty scatter shot sort of thing. Whereas now with this particular algorithm, you can, you know, I basically said generally if I read something where it's up to three percent of these, be verbs, it's fine, and generally if it gets to more than that, either the language is quite passive. You're using passive for constructions which always then brings in a be verb. You know, the research was performed, mistakes were made. So if you're doing the passive then you've often got rid of the agent, the person or thing doing the action, or it may just be that you're writing a lot of kind of lazy sentences. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, you know, it's this kind of monotonous use of one verb over and over again, and it's just so common in all levels of writing that that seemed an interesting and important thing to flag. Now, what it won't tell you is how to replace or how to rewrite those sentences using more energetic verbs. The book will help with that because it gives you some exercises and lots and lots of examples, but it will not do it for you.
Amy: 41:35 Well, you're writing in this book is a great example of the things that you're trying to teach us in the book itself. So thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. Can you tell us again the name of your latest book and where the listeners can reach you?
Helen Sword: 41:51 The latest one published last year is Air and Light and Time and Space. And if you go to The Writer’s Diet website, so writersdiet.com down at the bottom, you can subscribe to my newsletter now having said that, I write to the newsletter about once a year, so it's not a very active one, but I do use it to inform people of new developments. Also at the bottom of the page, you will see a link to the writing base, which is where you can go and, do a little self diagnostic tests looking at your behavioral, artisanal, social and emotional habits and how they all intersect. And you'll also find links from The Writer’s Diet site to my kind of main website, which is helensword.com. And there you can find links to all of all of my books on writing as well as various other things and things like the zombie nouns video, which is pretty much my favorite thing ever. Being able to take a piece of writing and then having somebody animated and add sound effects to see it. And I think I think practices what it preaches because it's taking this quite abstract. Know what is a nominalization, what's wrong with nominalizations? And it's, it's actually putting a story on it, the story about the zombie nouns that go and cannibalize other parts of speech and wreak havoc in our sentences.