There are many candidates for that “one writing guide you would bring to a desert island.” (Yes, the island would have Internet.) Excellent choices include The Elements of Style, On Writing Well or The Little, Brown Handbook. Another is Revising Prose by Dr. Richard A. Lanham. I read the book as a UCLA freshman in 1980, but it was 20 years later when I finally appreciated a college education as well as Dr. Lanham’s teachings. Fortunately, Revising Prose is now in its fifth edition, updated for the digital era.
At the center of Revising Prose is “The Paramedic Method,” Dr. Lanham’s process to improve writing’s quality and clarity:
- Circle the prepositions
- Circle the “is” forms.
- Find the action.
- Put this action in a simple (not compound) active verb.
- Start fast–no slow windups.
- Read the passage aloud with emphasis and feeling.
- Write out each sentence on a blank screen or sheet of paper and mark off its basic rhythmic units with a “/.”
- Mark off sentence length with a “/.”
Dr. Lanham combats the passive voice as do most good writing teachers, but he does it by measuring “lard factor” in sentences distended with prepositional phrases and infinitives. To establish the proper structure of actor-action-object, he urges the writer to identify “who is kicking who.” He knows the second pronoun in that phrase should be “whom,” but he finds that stilted. While stressing word reduction, he enforces rhythmic variation among sentences using The Paramedic Method’s final three steps. By reading prose aloud and charting its natural breaks, the writer can eliminate choppiness or monotony.
Revising Prose’s nemesis is “The Official Style,” Dr. Lanham’s characterization of bureaucratic writing that places “stasis over action.” Writers within academia, business or government (“we all live in a bureaucracy these days,” Dr. Lanham points out) resort to the vague, wordy style due to lack of experience, lack of confidence or lack of time. The Official Style creates the illusion of importance while concealing action. And it is contagious.
With the title of his book, Revising Prose, Dr. Lanham confirms that “all writing is rewriting.” He dares to strip away The Official Style to make us better writers. Note the action in that sentence, “dares.” It is a basic and potent verb that frames our challenge: writing takes guts. We dare to reveal our learning, logic and opinions. We dare to capture readers’ attention and earn their respect. By rescuing our writing with The Paramedic Method, Richard Lanham helps us take that dare.