Revising Prose (Fourth Edition)
(Retail $35.20, ~$20-30 used - ouch, but worth it)
I know I'm no literary genius or great story teller, but "Revising Prose" improved my writing immensely. I've had to buy it five times: everytime I've loaned it to a friend, they've fallen in love with it and I couldn't bring myself to take it back from them.
As one of them pointed out, in the short run it will make it harder for you to write - you'll end up "evaluating sentences instead of lettng them flow and then going back over them". But once this effect wears off, you'll find your writing has changed for the better.
Buy this book. Read this book. Think about this book. Become a better writer.
NOTE: Be sure you get the fourth edition with 125 pages. There's a 117-page version listed on Amazon, but I don't know what (if anything) they cut out to make it shorter.
The Paramedic Method
The title of the book says it all. This book focuses on revising existing prose. This includes everything from modifying documentation at your job, to reworking a "finished" essay that didn't go the way way you wanted, to this write up which I've revised at least fifteen times since I first posted it. To this end Lanham outlines a few simple ways to quickly diagnose what he considers the worst and most common problems in modern writing. None of these are hard and fast rules - they're suggestions and analysis tools. I've included it for reference, and added a short commentary of my own after each item. It's no substitute for the full book, but it's a start.
Circle the prepositions.
Prepositions behave like glue, sticking nouns and pronouns to other parts of a sentence. But connecting is all they do, so every proposition I use means more dead weight in my sentence. I think of this like taking the pulse of a sentence, only in reverse. On my e2 scratch pad, I use hardlinks instead of circles.
Circle the "is" forms.
Variations on "to be" have the same problem as propositions only more so. They actually deactivate any sentence - see passive voice. On their own they're not too bad, but they encourage the use of long strings of prepositional phrases, further pacifying their surroundings. Again, hardlinks work great here.
Ask, "Where's the action?" - "Who's kicking who?"(sic)
Sounds easy, sometimes isn't. Reading through the "Unrevised Review" below, you can see what I mean. Sometimes the action doesn't even appear in the sentence and we have to reconstruct it. "He was physically aided in his exodus from the property via the actions of security personel," really means, "Security kicked him out."
Put this central action in a simple active verb.
Simple enough. I've got the action, now I use it. Once I've done this, I try reconstructing the rest of the sentence around that action, but sometimes rewriting the sentence from scratch (based on what I understood it to mean) is easier.
Start fast - no slow windups.
Get to the point quickly. Lay down your actor and their action as early as you can. "Is that" is the worst offender here. Any time I see "is that", I know I can ignore it and all the the stuff before it in the sentence. Try it some time. Seeing "the fact that" also gives me an itchy backspace finger.
Write out each sentence on a blank screen or sheet of paper and mark off its basic rhythmic units with a "/".
Doing this should give you an idea of the sentence "shape". If you imagine the piece as poetry, what would it look like on the page? I'm still working on this one, though, so I won't comment further on it for now.
Mark off sentence lengths in the passage with a big "/" between sentences.
I like using <br> tags for this. If the sentences all look about the same length, or more specifically if I don't see some short ones, the passage will tend to drone and sound monotonous. Look at the third paragraphs of the unrevised and revised reviews. Consistent versus variable, boring versus active.
Read the passage aloud with emphasis and feeling.
This tests the voice of the passage. Try this with the unrevised review. In speaking it, you have to proceed carefully through a jungle of prepositional phrases, droning on and on like my last history professor, with no place to pause or stress. Now look at the revised. It's a wide open highway: as you read it, it tells you everything you need to know about how to say it, you can hear the personality and feeling behind every phrase. Which is "better"? That's depends on the situation, but I prefer to read the later, so I try to write that way whenever I can. Why would I want to sound like my history professor?
Let me show you an extreme example of the miraclous transformation possible when you apply these simple suggestions.
(I did this on purpose. Skip to the next section when you feel your eyes beginning to cross.)
For the most part, the author's point in this book is that many writers in this day and age are in the habit of writing in a particularly long-winded fashion. Examples of this type of neutralized, lackluster, formalized style of writing are extremely abundant because so many writers are completely inexperienced in the recognition of it. It is, perhaps understandably, difficult to conceptualize what kind of actions could be performed to revitalize these passages. Through careful analysis, however, the author of this book is able to devise a rule based method of reconstructing defective manuscripts, a course of emergency procedures to reinvigorate text. The author utilizes a large number of excerpts from actual manuscripts exemplifying the most degenerate aspects of the style he describes and is successful in restoring a large number of these to activated, appreciable, straight-forwardized language.
The books is divided into six chapters of which three chapters are devoted to the method of revision he is enamored of (in which he is also able to demonstrate several limitation of his suggested methods), two are devoted to the history of the rhetorical writing and the future of documentation in the modern world of today, and the final one is focused on demystifying the eternal question that has been on the mind of everyone since the beginning of time. The fact that he is able to communicate his concept in its entirety in under 125 pages is a miraculous feat.
One might, after reviewing the above information, be under the impression that this book would be difficult to read, due to the fact that many textbooks in the field of English grammar are somewhat arcane and even desiccated compared to the subject they wish to describe. When it comes to the education of many writers, these books are often in the habit of including many visualizations which, while the are intended to aid in the understanding of the material, are in most cases rather indecipherable. Contrary to those impressions, the author is in the habit of utilizing his own teachings, and is able to put forth an enlivening, interest causing, and thought provoking argument for the need to revise large portions of the text output by our society into more easily understandable communication.
This book aims to help us revive near-dead sentences, though Lanham never says it that way. He dubs the passive, shapeless, bureaucratic style of writing we see everywhere these days, "The Official Style". Unfortunately, he has no simple cure for it. Instead, he offers a set of basic suggestions for revising, a "Paramedic Method" for saving prose.
In fact, Lanham spends the first three chapters, more than half of the book, building this method, successively adding and explaining steps. He explores the effects of each step using dozens of examples, converting lifeless blobs of words into active, readable, plain English. He also examines exceptions to his rules: some passages look broken but turn out to be fine, while others look broken ... and turn out to be so broken they can't be saved. Next, in chapters four and five, he describes the origins of the official style and the possible future of writing in the computer age. Finally, in chapter six, he offers stunningly complete essay answering the vital question, "Why Bother [Revising]?" All this in less than 125 pages. Most impressive.
This book could have been the soul-sucking English textbook everyone encounters sooner or later in their life. It could have been leaden with Latinate terms and grammar diagrams. It could have been drier than a bowl of sawdustios with no milk. It is none of these. Revising Prose remains well-paced, engaging, and personal from beginning to end - the book all but reads itself to you in Lanham's voice. The examples of "Official Style" get mind-numbingly boring as the book progresses, but that only highlights the startling improvements good revision can yield.
"The Paramedic Method" (the bold list headings) copyright 1979, 1987, and 2000 - Richard Lanham. Reprinted with permission.
Special thanks to Quizro for suggesting reordering the sections.