Putting sentences to the sword
Author, professor, poet, linguistic gym mistress: Helen Sword is high above the Waitemata, crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Raised in California with a doctorate from Princeton, she now teaches at Auckland University, and you'd be lucky to be her student: she's warm, funny and effortlessly articulate. Over the engine noise, I can almost hear her brain humming down the phone line. A whip wishes it were this smart.
Sword is on a mission to improve the way we string words together. "People often write in ways that obscure their meaning," she says. "I used to see it all the time marking students' essays or reading colleagues' academic writing, so I wrote down some helpful principles. I wanted to make the point that writing well isn't some mystical ability other people have, but a matter of learning a few tools and understanding how a sentence works."
Sword wrote a fine book about writing in 2007, and I commend it to anyone with cause to construct sentences more complex than "the cat sat on the mat". Freshly reprinted, The Writer's Diet (AUP, RRP: $24:99) is a wee slip of a thing, a volume so slim as to be almost anorexic, but its 88 pages contain much wisdom.
Exceptions abound, but good writing is mostly about burning off blubber, reckons Sword. Exercising one's sentences until they are trim and shapely. Shedding excess kilos of adverbs and adjectives. Shunning passive verbs as if they were lumps of artery-clogging cake.
"Imagine yourself recruiting a long-distance runner to deliver an important message," she writes in the introduction. "What kind of person will you choose; a lean, strong athlete with well-toned muscles and powerful lungs, or a pudgy, unfit couch potato who will wheeze and pant up the first few hills before collapsing in exhaustion?"
As a pudgy, unfit couch potato who regularly wheezes his way up Nelson's hills, I could take this personally. But pray, continue. "The answer is obvious. Yet far too many writers send their best ideas out into the world on brittle-boned sentences weighted down with rhetorical flab."
This is true. Every day, wherever ink hits paper or pixels march across a backlit screen, we're faced with prose that's manifestly unfit for purpose. Amateurs and professionals alike routinely write in ways that impede understanding and enjoyment, cranking out prose that's woolly as a mammoth, purple as a plum or nana-nightie beige.
"I'm a poet," say Sword, "so I love precise, evocative language. But I also like clear, well-crafted prose of any kind. I know how much time and effort it takes to write a sentence that seems effortless, and I really value reading something where the writer has made that effort for me rather than just blurted something onto the page."
Sword by name, sword by nature. With The Writer's Diet, the author offers so many suggestions for slicing and restitching one's sentences, it might have been called The Writer's Surgical Manual.
It is not a book for grammar pedants, apostrophe Nazis, or those self-appointed guardians of the Queen's English who gasp in horror at the rising tide of slang as if it were seeping sewerage.
Sword's more concerned with style; she wants to nudge her readers onto the path towards writing that's punchy, vivid and lean. The physical fitness metaphor is sustained throughout; in this world, zingy active verbs are pecs, glutes and biceps; concrete nouns are strong bones; gratuitous adverbs and adjectives are a layer of lumpy lard obscuring the really rather sexy shape of what lies beneath.
But as a columnist of negligible discipline, I am fearful: if I practiced what this book preaches, my column would fit on the back of a postage stamp. When my weekly rantings are stripped of waffle, hyperbole, mixed metaphors and outright lies, what's left?
To find out, I headed to Sword's website (writersdiet.com) where there's a very useful "test" page. You simply dump in a sample of your own writing and digital elves instantly assess whether it's flabby or fit, grading it on a scale between "lean" and "heart attack".
Bracing for the worst, I pasted in last week's column and ran the test. Verdict: lean. "Oh, I could've told you that. I love your column! You're an energetic writer and you already know this stuff, but a lot of people don't. That's why I wrote this book. The Writer's Diet is like having a new pair of glasses so you can look at your writing and see what needs changing. Once you understand how a good sentence works, you can get your ideas across with much more clarity and power. And it's fun!"