My students typically get into a bad place about their writing style right about now – at midterm. Gripping their temples, they moan, “This is pointless. It’s stupid. You know what I meant.” Just a couple of weeks ago, they had (somewhat glibly) assured me that they were eager to learn how to write with a more powerful, lively, specific style. Now that they have had a taste of how difficult stylistic issues can be, and how deeply ingrained in their prose wordiness is, they’re frustrated. Quite understandably.
Revising to improve writing style can be a tortuous – and torturous – process. All too often, we fix one style error by creating another. Or we can’t think of a different way to phrase our ideas. Sometimes, we don’t even understand the wordy, jargon-filled prose our earlier selves drafted. It’s enough to make a writer want to give up.
But my students are not giving up. They are turning on the assignment instead, demanding to know what’s so great about active voice or what’s so wrong with “due to the fact that.” I find this feistiness encouraging, because it means that they are questioning assumptions about writing. They are thinking critically, even if their goal is nothing more noble than trying to worm out of the hard work of stylistic revision. They need a manageable sentence revision strategy to get them started.
At this point, I introduce the class to my favorite sentence revision technique: Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method of Revision. It’s simple to understand, easy to do, and effective.
Here it is:
1. Circle all the forms of the verb “to be.”
2. Circle all the prepositions.
3. Ask yourself, “who is doing the central action in this sentence?”
4. Make your answer the active subject of the sentence.
5. Eliminate mindless introductory phrases.
Let’s break it down.
1. Forms of the verb to be (For example: is, am, are, was, were, will have been, would be, has been, will be) are often a signal that passive voice is present. Additionally, “to be” is the most inert verb in the English language – step #3 almost always identifies a central action other than “being.”
2. The more prepositions in a sentence (For example: of, to, from, by, for, beside, among, between, over, off, in, onto, under, through, around, at), the higher the chance that the writer is using wordy phrases. Like the verb “to be,” prepositions have valid uses in English; however, writers often overuse them as well.
3. Often in a wordy sentence, the most important action is hiding in a noun or wordy phrase. By asking yourself to identify your sentence’s essential core, you will find that action and turn it into a vibrant active verb.
4. Make the “doer” of that active verb the sentence’s subject. After all, the subject and verb are a sentence’s most important parts. It stands to reason that they should communicate the sentence’s most important information.
5. Introductory phrases can be useful, but they can also be rhetorical throat-clearing. Your sentences should hit the ground running, content wise.
Example before the paramedic method:
In today’s society, honesty is seen as a quality that many people do not value.
Few people value honesty.
Another example before:
It is evident that there is an extensive process involved in the creation of high-quality writing that begins in the mind of the writer and does not cease but continues over the course of the process of writing from invention to editing.
A writer’s creative process starts in his or her mind and continues from invention to editing.
Of course, the Paramedic Method will not catch every stylistic gaffe. But applying it diligently can improve your writing dramatically. I hope you’ll try it soon.
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