Monday, July 23, 2012

Food for thought

Just by way of an exercise I thought I would put the writing of some well-known authors through the Writers Diet test. The results may well be instructive. Hemingway is first, the opening 133 words from The Sun Also Rises. I was expecting this to be pretty much the ideal for the testing tool. Hemingway is favoured for his brevity, the opening of the book is stand out classic Ernie and he makes great use of words. What's not to like?

The big surprise was that the text "needs toning". The full analysis says it makes far too much use of "be verbs" and has a lot of (gulp) "waste words". Holy crap, I wouldn't like to tell Ernesto he was wasting words. Even sober that would provoke him to violence. 

Second for this wholly unrealistic textual test is James Joyce. I put in the first 158 words of Ulysses with a due sense of treipdation. This, I was sure, would break the test. I often throw up my hands at Joyce's prose. Sometimes in awe, sometimes because I don't get what he's getting at. 

Another surprise. This one was flagged as "lean". Really? I'm genuinely confused by that. I guess that goes to show how good, and modern, Joyce was. Going back and reading those words (Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!) and I can see why it is seen as being so lean. All the words are working hard and the verbs help the story along. 

No test of writing can be complete without Dickens. The first 150 words of Nicholas Nickleby. I had trouble cutting the opening down to 150 because of the circumlocutions, hanging phrases and asides that it was peppered with. 

But that only meant I was not a little shocked when it came back as "fit and trim". Okay. That really does fox me. No-one, at least, none who count themselves a reader and have spent many an idle hour turning the pages of Mr Dicken's books or lugging their great weight between omnibus and armchair, can be so negligent as to forget the weight of words he manages to cram upon each page. 

Next is, of course,  HP Lovecraft. The test has confounded all my expectations so I'm not even going to speculate about what it would make of134 words from The Call of Cthulhu. The verdict? "Lean". The full analysis. "No improvement needed". Right. Hmm.

One last test. This time of text known to be bad. The runner up of the 2011 Bulwer Lytton fiction contest. Iwent for the runner up because the winner was not long enough to be useful. The excerpt is reproduced below in all its glory.

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this … and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

The verdict? Flabby. Hurrah. Its use of waste words (it, this, that, there) was right in "heart attack territory". Okay. That I can get behind.

There are a few conclusions I can reach from this. Firstly, perhaps the Writer's Test does what it says and can recognise good writing when it sees it. Second conclusion is that it doesn't work and every text put through this will produce almost the same result. Which leads me to my favoured conclusion. The line between good and bad is well demarcated. The line between good, publishable and great is much more blurred. It's easy to get from howlingly bad into the precincts of acceptable and beyond that it becomes less and less about how you write and more about audience. Get that and the rest follows. Popular acclaim is a great rebuttal for sneers about style, semantics and grammar.

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