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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Writer's Diet

Want to know if your writing is flabby or fit? Paste a paragraph or so into Writer's Diet and have it analyzed.

This is really for prose, and more specifically, for academic writing. But it might come in handy some time.

In fact, I just ran an academic paper that is due Friday and found out that my verbs are flabby and my prepositions need toning. Hmmmmm. And all I need to do is buy the book by website author Helen Sword to fix that problem....

The in-depth analysis shows counting of the number of word by parts of speech per paragraph, and I apparently have too many "be" verbs for the program's taste, and I use throw-away words like "that" and "it" too often. There's also a suggestion that I could cut away some nouns (well, long nouns--just by counting letters, such nouns are deemed unworthy--content be damned). There'll be nothing left if I follow the suggestions on this website!

Give it a try and see if your writing rates better than mine. Then let me know.

(Oh, and shout out to Diane H. N., from whose Facebook page I learned of this website.)


Perogyo said...

How very odd. This sounds like one of those things a Japanese client will say about a translation. "There are too many tos in here". Just because.

Helen Sword said...

Hi Jessica -- Thanks for your post. Just wanted to point out that the Writer's Diet test doesn't "count letters" as you imply. For the Noun test, it searches for nominalizations, which are abstract nouns created from other parts of speech (examples: obsequiousness, parliamentarianism, nominalization). A score of "flabby" in the noun category indicates that your prose is relatively abstract and impersonal -- a common issue for academics and bureaucrats, rare for fiction writers and poets. Similarly, a high percentage of "be" verbs signals a correspondingly low percentage of vivid verbs, which contribute energy and thrust to good writing. Needless to say, no automated tool can replace a writer's individual judgement; the Writer's Diet is intended to help you see your sentences from a fresh angle, not to impose a monolithic style. All the best with your writing -- Helen Sword

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Perogyo, sorry to have been so slow responding. End of my my (learning) semester and midterm of my (teaching) semester have been making me crazy.

Well, it's a gimmick, for what it's worth. Just not something to take too seriously, IMHO. It does sound like complaints from a non-native speaker though, doesn't it?

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Dear Helen,

Thanks for taking time to visit my site and comment. I think my main point was not about "counting letters" but "counting words," and I think you are arguing that it is more counting groups of words, if I understand your point correctly. Anyway, clearly it is an automatic device which we both seem to agree cannot really analyze a piece of writing better than a human could, though it may give a writer something to think about in the meantime.

I happen to be reading Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue (the British version) and found this outdated study cited there: "In 1923 a lexicographer named G. H. McKendrick did a comprehensive study of how words are used and found that just forty-three words account for fully half of all the words in common use, and that just nine account for fully one quarter of all the words in almost any sample of written English. Those nine are: and, be, have, it, of, the, to, will, and you." (p. 142)

Obviously this study is completely outdated, and given that the estimation of new words coined yearly ranges from 15,000 to 20,000(p. 143), there are more words to choose from, but they are going to be content words rather than the form words listed above, which still are necessary (and I'll bet the new words are largely longer words too, as the short combinations are already taken, for the most part).

Anyway, while I agree that academic writing can be turgid, and I'm sure your book gives writers advice on how to avoid that, I'd rather have my work analyzed by a thinking human being than by an automatic device which is counting, not reading, regardless of what it is counting. But I'm pretty sure you'd agree with that anyway. It's a fun device you put on your website, but my point is that it's really more a gimmick than an real analytical tool, which you may or may not agree with.

All this is said with respect though. I'm sure your book is useful for academic writers.