I first heard of Richard Lanham’s books Analyzing Prose, and Revising Prose when I was taking a class called “Rhetoric,” in grad school. Though much of what transpired in that class is lost to me forever, Lanham and his works have stuck around.
Richard Lanham is all about good writing. Years ago he developed a little checksheet, which he called “The Paramedic Method” for revision. Anyone interested in writing clean, concise, vivid prose should know about this list. There are numerous versions around the internet, but here is the basic list. Print it out, then pull up a chair, grab something you’ve written, and see how your writing stacks up.
Before you get down to the nuts and bolts of the list, though, try something else Lanham suggests: Try reading your writing aloud, with emphasis and feeling. It’s a simple test–and one of the best ways to begin editing. When you finish (or think you’ve finished) editing, do it again. If you can’t read a sentence with emphasis and feeling, chances are good your audience can’t, either.
But to the list. I’m going to add notes in italics. Lanham’s words will be in bold, as well they should be:
The Paramedic Method
- Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
Watch out for long lists of prepositional phrases (On the dresser in front of the mirror beside the brush and under the comb sat a letter.) They slow readers down and become singsongy and confusing.
- Draw a box around the “is” verb forms
(am, is, are, was, were, been, being) These verbs do nothing except indicate existence. They’re incredibly useful, so you’ll probably use a lot of them, but eliminate them where you can.
- Ask, “Where’s the action?”
Read your sentence, and then state it aloud in it’s simplest terms. Can you write it like that?
- Change the “action” into a simple verb
Consider replacing multi-word verb forms with single forms wherever possible. Can you replace “he had been running” with “he ran”, or, “the water was pouring” with “the water poured”? Note you’re eliminating weak “is” verbs in these simplifications.
- Move the doer into the subject (Who’s kicking whom)
Instead of, “The boy was kicked by the donkey,” write, “The donkey kicked the boy.”
- Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups
Consider eliminating weak beginnings like, “In my humble opinion…” “In the last analysis…” “To make a long story short…”
- Eliminate any redundancies.
(“The girl had been weeping all day, and I had been crying, too,” can easily become, “The girl and I had been crying all day.” Dumb sentence, but you get the point. This point can be applied on a larger scale as well. As you read your work, be on the lookout for places where you repeat scenes, where you make the same points in only slightly different ways, and where you tell a story that illustrates a point, and then tack on a paragraph that basically restates what your story already said, better.
Try going through the list for a paragraph, or a page. Then try reading it out loud again. Remember language is spoken first. Listen to your words. I think you’ll be amazed. I know I was.
Now You Try
Use the Paramedic Method in the sentences below to practice.
Use the Paramedic Method in the sentences below to practice making your sentences more concise. After you use the Paramedic Method on these sentences, check your results against the sentences at the bottom of this handout.
- The point I wish to make is that the employees working at this company are in need of a much better manager of their money.
- It is widely known that the engineers at Sandia Labs have become active participants in the Search and Rescue operations in most years.
- After reviewing the results of your previous research, and in light of the relevant information found within the context of the study, there is ample evidence for making important, significant changes to our operating procedures.
- Employees at this company need a better money manager. (Original word count: 26. New word count: 10).
- In recent years, engineers at Sandia Labs have participated in the Search and Rescue operations. (Original word count: 24. New word count: 16).
- After reviewing the results of your research, and within the context of the study, we find evidence supporting significant changes in our operating procedures. (Original word count: 36. New word count: 25).
This particular version of the list came from the English department at Purdue University. There’s much, much more in Lanham’s books; I recommend that you buy a copy of each.