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"Prose, energize!"

Helen Sword, professor and director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland, authored the book The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

She offers five rules to improve your prose:

1. Verbal verve: use active verbs whenever possible.

  • 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).

2. Noun density: favor concrete language over vague abstractions.

  • Anchor abstract ideas in concrete language and images.

  • Illustrate abstract concepts using real-life examples (“Show, don’t tell”).

  • Limit your use of abstract nouns, especially nominationalizations (nouns that have been formed from verbs, adjectives, or other nouns).

3. Prepositional podge: avoid long strings of prepositional phrases.

  • Avoid using more than three prepositional phrases in a row (e.g., in a letter to the author of a book about birds”) unless you do so to achieve a specific rhetorical effect.

  • Vary your prepositions.

  • As a general rule, do not allow a noun and its accompanying verb to become separated by more than about twelve words.

4. Ad-dictions: employ adjectives and adverbs only when they contribute something new to the meaning of a sentence.

  • Let concrete nouns and active verbs do most of your descriptive work.

  • Employ adjectives and adverbs only when they contribute new information to a sentence.

  • Avoid overuse of “academic ad-words,” especially those with the following suffixes: able, ac, al, ant, ary, ent, ful, ible, ic, ive, less, ous.

5. Waste words: reduce your dependence on four pernicious “waste words”: it, this, that, and there.

  • Use it and this only when you can state explicitly which noun each word refers to.

  • As a general rule, avoid using that more than once in a single sentence or three times in a paragraph, expect to achieve a specific stylistic effect.

  • Beware of sweeping generalizations that begin with “There.”

Watch Helen Sword’s TED-Ed lecture on one of the points in #2, on avoiding nominalizations:

You can test your own prose for free using her WritersDiet Test, an automated feedback tool that “identifies some of the sentence-level grammatical features that most frequently weigh down academic prose.”

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