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The Writer’s Diet

writersdiet.com

“The higher the percentage of highlighted words, the ‘flabbier’ your score” (from The Writer’s Diet website).
 
“…people may write and then delete excellent work” because of the Writer’s Diet Test (from an anonymous review featured on The Writer’s Diet website).
 
The Writer’s Diet is a free online diagnostic tool that gives feedback on whether one’s writing is “flabby or fit” (i.e., wordy or concise). It is praised for its colourful visuality and simplicity of use. A more comprehensive MS Word add-in is also available for free from October 2020.
 
However, in order to make sense of the tool’s feedback, one has to understand the underlying principles guiding its work. Use it in the classroom with care and guidance to investigate what makes “good/readable writing.”

Description

The Writer’s Diet, like The Hemingway Editor, is a diagnostic tool that tests how writers use their vocabulary. Based on “a simple algorithm,” the tool identifies and highlights those types of words within six grammatical categories that tend to “weigh down stodgy prose.” Specifically, it highlights and colour-codes any instances of abstract nouns, weak verbs, redundant adverbs and adjectives, overuse of prepositions, and potentially confusing uses of demonstrative pronouns within the text. The website lists the key principles used for evaluating writing, while the short eponymous book that accompanies the test discusses them in detail. Whether used online or as an app within MS Word, the test is diagnostic only. It intends to help wordy writers reflect on their writing and develop more reader-friendly and “lively” prose.
 
While improving the above mentioned aspects in one’s writing will certainly make it more readable to others, this process of lexical “trimming” may compromise the writer’s unique voice and style. The tool is unable to distinguish between writing within various disciplines and genres, applying the same test formula to texts of all types. Confident writers might also oppose the tool’s idea of what constitutes good writing.
 
Nevertheless, it is well worth engaging with The Writer’s Diet to explore not only one’s own writing but also writing by others who are celebrated for their literary skill. For example, the tool can show that Marcel Proust’s writing, which is thought to be wordy, hardly contains any abstract verbs or nouns.
 
 
Visit Experiments to see how The Writer’s Diet responded to a range of texts.

 

(Mis)Use in Writing

Use The Writer’s Diet to learn more about your own writing (including your lexical weaknesses, strengths and quirks); the role and effect of different parts of speech in writing; the workings of the tool (its capacities and limitations); and the conventions of specific genres and text types. Like any other diagnostic and developmental tool, The Writer’s Diet encourages self-reflection. It is best used on your own writing, but for comparative educational and experimental purposes, feel free to test it on other texts too.
 
Academic writers: for your next scholarly publication, try to write an abstract that is not laden with nominalisations and other abstractions. Compared to other sections in academic articles, abstracts frequently get diagnosed as “flabby.” The MS Word add-in analyzes your entire text, identifying problem areas for targeted revision.
 

 

In the Classroom

Use The Writer’s Diet in your classroom to encourage students to think about the principles of good writing. What constitutes so-called “good” writing, and for whom? Conversely, what makes writing difficult to read and understand? How do our word choices affect the clarity and readability of our writing? Encourage students to test the tool on their own writing, and ask them what they’ve learned from the result.
 
Personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and small-scale research show that students often fail to understand what the tool does. They misread its diagnostic result because they have not familiarized themselves with the basic principles that guide the tool’s work. For example, the tool might determine writing to be “flabby” because the writer has chosen words that are abstract and “weak,” not because they have used “too many nouns” or “verbs.”
 
Students also seem to get easily offended by The Writer’s Diet (See the Ethical Issues section below.) They dislike what they perceive as its fat-shaming approach, and they are critical of what they see as the tool’s shortcomings (e.g., it does not offer suggestions for better word choices and it does not check for grammar and spelling mistakes). View student feedback on the tool as part of a formative exercise. Student judgement on the workings of the tool can reveal, among other things, their assumptions about what good writing is (e.g., a universe of perfect lexical balance where all parts of speech are used at the “right” ratios). The Writer’s Diet is also good for making students aware of the dangers of convoluted, abstract prose (which many think is required in academic writing).
 
 
To view suggestions for classroom activities with The Writer’s Diet, visit Exercises.

 

Drawbacks & Malfunctions

Text-handling capacity
One of the biggest drawbacks of The Writer’s Diet online version is its limited text-handling capacity. It can only process textual fragments of up to 1,000 words in length. The only way for the writer to have their entire piece of writing tested is to copy-paste it into the online platform and run the test section by section (which is tedious and does not give a good overview). This limitation has been solved by an MS Word add-in (released in October 2020), which allows the writer to focus on both the entire piece of writing and specific sections requiring attention.
 
 
Disciplinary differences
The Writer’s Diet is unable to distinguish between different types of writing: it judges them all against the same criteria for general readability. Technical writers, for example, might find that their writing is frequently diagnosed as “flabby” due to the abundance of discipline-specific terminology. The only way to avoid this is for the writer to manually enter key terminology for the tool to ignore (likewise for disciplinary types of writing that deal with complex and abstract ideas, such as philosophy, ethics, literary theory, and so on, where the form of writing may have to match the subject-matter which itself resists simple and concrete lexical expression).
 
 
Semantic understanding
The tool’s capacity for semantic understanding is zero. It is not interested in the overall meaning, coherence, and cohesion of the tested text. One’s writing may appear “lean” and yet be absolutely incomprehensible or simply badly written, as Susan Weiner’s example and samples from our Experiments illustrate.
 
 
Blind spots
The algorithm that powers The Writer’s Diet test is a crude instrument that has some unavoidable blind spots. The tool does not include certain things in the input text in its analysis (e.g., capitalised words, except for those that start a new sentence). This and similar weaknesses get exposed when the tool is fed an unconventional piece of text, such as a nonsense rhyme by Edward Lear.
 

The Writer’s Diet also ignores any text in parentheses (which it assumes to be a citation). Neither does it recognize any text that is part of a quotation. You can overcome these restrictions by changing the tool’s Settings, allowing the user to specify what should be included or excluded from the test. Make sure you (and your students) are aware of this option.

 
The Writer’s Diet makes an occasional hiccup by mistaking a noun for an adjective (e.g., as in the phrase “Plato’s ideal”).
 
App’s user interface and functionality

The more comprehensive MS Word add-in is more fiddly to use than the web version and takes some getting used to. While helpful, the visual shorthands used for displaying and filtering the test’s results can also overwhelm a new user.

 
Visit Experiments to see how The Writer’s Diet responds to academic, literary, and other types of texts.

 

 

Ethical Issues

 Data privacy

With the release of the app and the new website version, The Writer’s Diet has finally published its data privacy policy.  The Writer’s Diet does not store or sell your data in any form. That is also true when downloading and using the Writer’s Diet add-in for MS Word (“the app”) on a locally-installed version of Microsoft Office for Windows or Mac OS. However, if you use the add-in with the free online version of MS Word from Office 365, your writing is “stored in the cloud, and your data is therefore governed by the privacy rules associated with your Microsoft Office account.”

 
 
Political correctness 
The tool’s original descriptors used for the test results (“flabby” and “heart attack” are the two worst diagnoses one can get) may appear offensive or, at least, politically incorrect to some people. The 2020 web version as well as the MS Word add-in have fixed this by offering users the option of selecting their own metaphors for measuring the degrees of clarity and concision in their writing.
 
 
Marketing
Users occasionally raise concerns that the free tool is merely a marketing ploy for The Writer’s Diet book (these concerns are based on the fact that the tool offers limited feedback and little guidance for revision). The tool is indeed meant to be used together with the book. However, if the user understands the basic principles guiding the style checker’s work then the book is not required and the tool can be used on its own. If using it in the classroom, make sure beforehand that your students can freely access print or online book copies from your local library.

 

Experiments

Visit Experiments to explore The Writer’s Diet’s judgement on a range of conventional and unconventional texts (including an academic article, an institutional mission statement, a novel, and nonsense poetry).

Reading Room

No thorough research has been done on the use of The Writer’s Diet in (teaching) writing. The short reading list below includes both articles that refer to The Writer’s Diet tool (its old version) and reviews that evaluate the eponymous book, The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose. Let us know if you come across any useful material on the tool.
 
 
Gump, S. E. (2016) The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose by Helen Sword. Journal of Scholarly Publishing 48(1), 68-71. https://doi.org/10.3138/jsp.48.1.BR  
 
Hodges, T.S. & Hani M. (2017) Focus on Technology: Digitizing Students’ Writing With Online Tools. Childhood Education 93(1), 93-95. https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2017.1275255
 
Shook, K. (2016) The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose.Times Higher Education 2253 (May 5), 51(1).
 
Stanny, C.J. (n/d) The WritersDiet Test: Using Online Writing Diagnostics to Develop Self-Editing Skills and Improve Writing. Bellarmine University. https://www.bellarmine.edu/docs/default-source/faculty-development-docs/13-the-writersdiet-testa944f896fcf16c298b1dff00007f963e.pdf?sfvrsn=aab59481_0
 
Weiner, S. B. (2017) Editing Tool: the Writer’s Diet Investment Writing (4th July). https://www.investmentwriting.com/2017/07/editing-tool-writers-diet/

 

Technical Specs

Title
The Writer’s Diet*
Website
Type of help offered
Gives feedback on text’s clarity, concision and readability
Platform
Online; desktop (MS Word add-in for MS Office 2016, MS Office 2019, and MS Office 365, including Word Online)
Cost
Free
Function
Developmental; descriptive
Method
Pattern-recognition algorithms
User interface
Friendly, online version relatively simple and colourful; highlights potential issues in text
Related sources
The Writer’s Diet book; other free and paid resources on the tool’s website (see Workout)
Browser plug-ins
Currently none
Integrations
MS Word (released October 2020)
First released
2007
Developer
Support service
* Disclaimer: This website and its resources were created in the first half of 2019, based on the most recent broadly available versions of each tool at the time. This specific page was last revised in October 2020 to include information about the newly-released comprehensive MS Word add-in. Technology changes too rapidly for us to capture the details of each new version. Here we address more lasting issues: the overall accuracy of algorithm-based corrections vs a human mind; the invisible ideological and linguistic influence exerted by our writing tools on our minds; the pedagogical and ethical implications of using each tool for (teaching) writing.