The Study Dude – The Writer’s Diet

How to Write Like a Top Student with Helen Sword

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to learn the intricacies of writing like the pros.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s article peers into the belly of The Writer’s Diet, a book written by a well-cited author in the field of academic writing, Dr. Helen Sword. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Helen Sword for my podcast. She exceeded all expectations. Furthermore, her book Writer’s Diet leaves a lasting impression on the reader, altering the readers’s style of writing permanently with each flip of the page.

Getting the Verve in Your Verbs
I started reading the dictionary daily to glean verbs with punch. Using verbs to drive your sentences has added benefits: one is that you can more easily paraphrase others? works by making the verbs the key drivers. Another is that by paraphrasing with verbs as your central punch you enliven your writing.

I recently bought a book on how to write book reviews that included a to be word as the main verb in every single sentence. I couldn’t take the writing seriously. How could a professional book reviewer sidetrack from good writing by piling on passive sentence after passive sentence? The book remains in my Kindle, no longer touched.

Helen Sword provides the best advice anywhere on how to energize your sentences with verbs:
– Reduce your be verbs (which includes is, are, am, being, to be, etc.) to the bare minimum. Use active verbs instead, like punch, push, rise, etc. Active verbs spice up writing with “force and complexity…” (p. 6) and “economy and precision” (p. 6).
– Change passive verbs (be verbs where the actor does not exist in the subject of the sentence) so that the actor is present in the subject. (This changes “The book was read” to “He read the book.”
– When you combine a be verb with an -ing ended verb, the writing stinks of over-processing (for instance I am reading). A better strategy involves tightening up the verb combination to one single verb (I read), which contains greater flare, strength, and simplicity.

Ridding Your Writing of Nuisance Nouns
Academics love to make their sentences cryptic and far removed from the real world. The stuffier the sentence, the better, it seems. The more you need to read and reread a sentence to glean the meaning, the bigger the victory for the academic. At least, some academics tend to think this way. The really great academics, on the other hand, like to make their writing comprehensible and friendly from the outset. The great academics want you to grasp their meaning, to learn from it, and, if possible, to put it to practical use.

I learned all this from Helen Sword’s writings and her interview. To venture further, the following lists Helen’s advice on how to avoid nuisance nouns:

– Nouns that take are derived from verbs, adjectives, and other nouns are called nominalizations. Avoid these nuisances in your writing.
– Elaborate on abstract nouns by providing anecdotes, analogies, stories, or examples.
– We can sense concrete nouns through sight (i.e., color), sound, touch, taste, or smell. These types of nouns infuse life into writing. Abstract nouns wilt and weaken writing, as the senses can’t perceive them.
– If you use copious abstract nouns, surround them by the presence of active verbs and some great concrete nouns.
– Keep your verbs as verbs. When you alter the verb by making it a noun with a -ment or -tion suffix (accomplish versus accomplishment), the life gets sucked out of the word.

Beware It, This, That, There
Yesterday, I enthusiastically purchased a book called something like Critical Thinking for Dummies. The first several pages seemed riddled with that phrases. After reading three pages, my confusion overcame me. Too many that phrases strung together make for convoluted, painful writing. The points in the introduction seemed simple enough, but the poor level of writing interfered with my comprehension of the material. I slogged through sentence after sentence until, finally, I returned the book for a refund. If only the author had read Helen Sword’s Writer’s Diet and applied the principles, then I certainly would have savoured the book’s content.

Funnily, I used to write like the dummies guide author did. My thesis, poorly drafted, strung it, this, that, and there phrases in endless chains. Even more funnily, the published authors? works that I read and cited in my thesis were really no better. They stuffed these empty it referents and tiresome that phrases wherever they could muster the nerve.

Our friend, Helen Sword, set me straight, and she’ll do the same for you. Here follows some of Helen’s advice on using these empty words:
it and this should only appear in your writing when the referent is clear. For instance, the dog shook the bag by the handle, and it fell to the ground doesn’t clearly indicate what fell to the ground (the dog, the bag, or the handle).
– “As a general rule, avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or three times in a paragraph” (p. 49).
– The despicable it, there, that, and this words usually string around be verbs, draining the vigour out of the writing.
– Avoid it, especially when the word is followed by an is and a that. For instance, “it is ascertained that… sets up a lot of useless words. Just get to the point and your writing will improve in your instructor’s eyes.

Exceptions override these rules, of course, and to learn more writing tips, order Dr. Helen Sword’s book The Writer’s Diet from Auckland University Press. I did. The book takes a few days to read and leaves an indelible mark.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Sword, Helen. (2015). The Writer’s Diet. New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

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