Is It Really Fat, What They Tell You to Cut?

I clicked on somebody’s link on Twitter and found an interesting tool:

The Wasteline Test assesses whether your writing is ‘flabby’ or ‘fit’. The test works by counting percentages of words in five categories commonly associated with stodgy sentences: weak verbs, abstract nouns, prepositions, adjectives/adverbs and ‘waste words’ (it, this, that, there). For every writing sample you submit, you will receive an overall fitness rating ranging from lean to heart attack territory.

I read a lot of academese for work and wonder how this affects my writing, so I pasted in a chunk from my novel and clicked “Take the test.” Result: lean—whew. I posted a link on Twitter and had an interesting conversation with @marybrebner about how useful this would be as a teaching tool. “But what about ‘fat’ descriptive writing—which can be great?” Mary asked. How would that test?

I had to try it. The test returns an overall score and a breakdown of each of the categories, so you can see what particular usage may have dragged down your score. It highlights each category of words in a different color so it’s easy to analyze your passage and think about edits. I looked up some books at Project Gutenberg and pasted the first chapters into the Waistline Test. I don’t know if these titles are considered examples of florid prose, but they aren’t from the text message era.

Emma, by Jane Austen: fit & trim (B grade)
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy: fit & trim
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley: fit & trim
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum: fit & trim
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens: needs toning (C or D grade)

War and Peace ranked flabby for “be” verbs (which could be a translation issue) and lean for abstract nouns and use of prepositions. The test marks down for overuse of “it,” “this,” “that,” and “there,” and A Tale of Two Cities starts out “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . ” etc. Other Dickens I tested was graded fit and trim; in other words, the Tale of Two Cities beginning was a decision on his part, used to great effect—it’s one of the most famous first lines in literature. The Waistline Test is a great way to remind you to think consciously about whether that’s the best way to achieve the desired effect.

The book that goes along with the test is The Writer’s Diet, by Helen Sword.


Published by annmariegamble

Ann Marie Gamble has been putting pen to paper since her mom made her scrub the crayon off the stairwell walls (one chapter per step). Although there is plenty of inspiration to be had in the carpool lane, she likes writing her way across the galaxy as well as across town, and she especially enjoys research missions (aka family vacations) when she and the boys can get away. Her favorite place to write is a room with a view and a pot of tea.

One thought on “Is It Really Fat, What They Tell You to Cut?

  1. Interesting! I had to run the test on the first four pages of my book – also lean .. whew!

    I’d love to see the looks on academics’ faces when they see the results, though.

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