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Richard Lanham in Revising Prose (UCLA, 1981) proposes the following method for snipping a sentence into shape:

  1. Circle the prepositions.
  2. Circle the “is” forms.
  3. Ask, “Where’s the action?” “Who’s kicking who?”
  4. Put this “kicking” action in a simple (not compound) active verb.
  5. Start fast — no slow windups .
  6. Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases.

Reassemble the pieces, and resuscitate. See Lanham’s first example, “There is a good deal of circumstantial evidence in support of this scheme.” Post-operation this reads, “Much circumstantial evidence supports this scheme.”

And then, moving to a paragraph:

  1. Write out each sentence on a blank sheet of paper and mark off its basic rhythmic units with a “/”.
  2. Mark off sentence lengths in the passage with a “/”.
  3. Read the passage aloud with emphasis and feeling.

Reading aloud reveals whether the sentences are breathing. (My first draft of the previous sentence was: “It can be established whether the sentences are breathing, or otherwise, by reading them aloud.” Paramedic attention produced the revision.)

The Paramedic Method is especially effective in combatting what Lanham calls “Official Style”, characterized by the following:

  1. Euphemistic
  2. Noun style
  3. Impersonal constructions with the passive voice
  4. Takes time to get going
  5. Built from “is” and prepositional phrases.

This, perhaps with jargon in place of euphemistic, characterizes much “academic prose”, too. For example, noun phrases are used as conceptual building blocks, with prepositions forming linkages. See the later examples in the video Revising Prose and Lanham’s book of the same title. Surgery can be quite drastic. To the “Blah Blah is that… ” opening, e.g. “What I would like to signal here is that …”, Lanham suggests “amputating the fanfare”, simply removing the prefatory throat-clearing. Cut to the chase!

Helen Sword has elaborated a version of this surgical method using the less dramatic metaphor of dieting (perhaps inspired by Lanham’s “lard factor” of post-operation reduction in sentence flabbiness).

Further reading:

R. Lanham, Revising Prose, 3rd ed. Allyn & Bacon, 1992
Helen Sword, The Writer’s Diet, Auckland Univ. Press, 2007.
Paramedic Method: a lesson in writing concisely (Purdue OWL). Handout.


Andrew Goodall

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