In his book, Revising Prose, Richard Lanham developed a method for sentence revision that can work wonders at making professional writing more clear for readers. The Purdue OWL has a nice overview of this method: click here to see it. In this post, I briefly illustrate the value of revising wordy sentences (something most writers kind of intuitively value already), but then I finish up the post with a comment on style.
The basic idea of this method is to reduce the sentence to its most basic meaning or message. For example, here’s a hypothetical sentence that is extremely wordy (with some exaggeration for effect) along with a suitable revision that is much more concise:
ORIGINAL: It is critically important in football that the quarterback be quick in his thinking and fast on his feet in order to get the ball to the right player and make the play that will move the football further down the field.
REVISION: In football, it is important for the quarterback to think and act quickly in order to move the ball down the field.
I removed some of the content of the first sentence, but the basic message remains intact. Anyone who knows the rules of football will know that “making the play” requires passing the ball to someone, so that information need not be included. What’s more important is that the revised sentence is 20 words shorter than the original.
So what’s the point? We all know that making sentences clear and direct can make or break the effectiveness of a piece of writing. The point is that writing is learned by doing (If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write - Gail Sher in her book One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers). Likewise, sentence-level editing and conciseness is learned by doing, too. The more eyeballs that review a sentence, and review it critically, the more likely it will be as clear as it can be.
And now to style. This discussion is incomplete without a discussion of style – the writer’s own personal touch, personal voice, and personal goal in the writing. Hence the t-shirt I once saw – and much enjoyed reading – which simply bore the words “Department of Redundancy Department.” If any other department tried to “announce” itself this way, it would end up being redundant and the Paramedic Method would tell us to remove one of the two “departments.” Yet for this t-shirt the content requires the redundancy.
The Paramedic Method can be an extremely useful tool for revising one’s own writing, because it is a clear list of steps for the writer to apply. Of course, in the process, writers must always bear in mind their goals, voice, and intended style for the piece they themselves are creating.