Perfecting Your Prose—Part 1: Richard Lanham and the Paramedic Method


Prose writing is no less an art than any other kind of writing. Getting it right requires a mastery of grammar and punctuation, syntax and diction, paragraph arrangement and style. Some elements of writing can be learned from a book. Grammar and punctuation, for example. Syntax concerns the proper arrangement of words to make coherent phrases, and the organization of phrases to make legitimate sentences, or sentence fragments that work. Diction is all about choosing the best words for the job.

Some of these elements shade into more subjective dimensions having to do with style. Style is person-relative. Individual style is desirable. But there is a bottom floor that any stylist should start with. And this is about the most difficult thing to explain to prose writers intent on improving their work.

I don’t teach composition—at least not officially. Most of my students are graduate students majoring in philosophy. They understand that writing effective prose is crucial to their development as professional philosophers. Their prospects for further graduate research, full-time employment, and publication depend on their writing prowess. For my courses, I’ve developed a sequence of writing exercises that lead ultimately to a term paper that might eventually be worked into something publishable. I emphasize the craft of writing no less than the organization of ideas. I return papers to students pretty thoroughly marked up, with suggestions of every kind. Most of my students appreciate this.

Still, I’ve wished for a book to complement these efforts. With the right resource on hand, students could experiment with alternative techniques and practice good habits of stylization while writing their papers and before submitting them for my evaluation. I’ve despaired, though, thinking that the the steps involved simply cannot be reduced to a formula that could be learned and followed. I was wrong.

Well, mostly wrong. Style is idiosyncratic and evolves, often mysteriously, with much practice writing and re-writing. But there is a blueprint for the bottom floor, and it can be found in Richard A. Lanham’s book Revising Prose. For all the pains I’ve taken to build a library of writing resources, I have no idea how I could have overlooked this gem for so many years. The first edition was issued in 1979, when I was halfway through my college education. I could have used this book then, and I find that I can use it now.

Lanham calls his basic procedure for revision the “Paramedic Method.” This because it serves in emergency situations. This parallels my metaphor of “the ground floor” of writing style. In the first chapter, Lanham addresses the lard factor, and demonstrates how so much writing that looks innocent nearly collapses of its own weight. Whereas I’ve shown students in my mark-ups of their papers that nearly every sentence they write can be paired down without loss of information and with improved effect, Lanham explains how a writer can do this himself. There’s a recipe for this sort of thing.

Here is my adaptation of Lanham’s method of minimal revision, with tasks listed in step-wise fashion:

  1. Circle all prepositions in all of your sentences.
  2. Circle all instances of the infinitive verb “to be” (i.e., “is,”are,” “was,” “were”).
  3. Using the prepositional phrases as clues, ask, “Who is performing whatever action is implied in each sentence?”
  4. Convert this action into a simple active verb and substitute it for the verbs you’ve circled, making whatever additional changes that are required by this substitution.
  5. Collapse compound verbs into simple verbs.
  6. Eliminate mindless introductions to sentences.
  7. Read each sentence aloud with emphasis and feeling.
  8. Re-shape your prose so that it can be read aloud with the expressive emphasis you intend.
  9. Mark the basic rhythmic units of each sentence with a “/”.
  10. Mark off sentence lengths.
  11. Vary the lengths of your sentences to improve cadence, rhythm, and “sound.”

Lanham calls this process “translating into plain English.” It sucks out the “prose sludge” that plagues customary writing. Every step is explained in detail and thoroughly illustrated in Revising Prose. Practice exercises are provided along the way. The result should be about a 50% reduction of lard in ordinary prose writing and more energetic sentences throughout.

Related links:

Advertisements

The Christian Introvert


Adam S. McHugh has written a wise book of guidance for the Christian introvert. I’m convinced by his argument that the Christian church in the West is, by and large, an “extrovert church,” and that this has stifled and confused many members of the church and enervated the church’s influence in the world.

Here’s my chapter-by-chapter review of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh.

Chapter 1, “The Extroverted Church,” documents the extroverted tone of the Christian church today. The author’s citation from Eugene Peterson gets right to the point: “American religion is conspicuous for its messianically pretentious energy, its embarrassingly banal prose, and its impatiently hustling ambition.”  Such “hustling ambition” is part of the legacy of the first and second Great Awakenings. I would add that it is also a capitulation to modern western culture. Approximately half of the church’s demographic is temperamentally introverted, and so a large sector of the church is made to feel alienated and inadequate to the call of God in their lives.

Chapter 2, “The Introverted Difference,” helpfully describes the differences between two temperaments, the extrovert and the introvert. Any Christian reader will probably know whether she is an extrovert believer or an introvert believer after reading this chapter. And if she is an introvert, she will probably feel considerable relief that someone understands her. McHugh’s affirmation of the introvert temperament begets inspiration to own your introvert temperament and re-engage with the church and the culture in ways that draw on your strengths as an introvert.

The fundamental difference concerns the direction of energy flow in the life of the individual, especially in relation to social interaction. The extrovert, of course, seeks out and is energized by interaction with others. The introvert, though capable of participation, feels the energy drain away as a result too much interaction. This affects her perception of herself as a member of an extroverted culture. And it can be misunderstood by the extroverts who set the tone for this culture of extroversion.

Note: Being an introvert doesn’t make you shy, or inhibited, or anti-social. And being an introvert is no better or worse than being an extrovert.

Chapter 3, “Finding Healing,” addresses the need of so many introverts for healing from the wounds inflicted by the exclusivity of our extroverted culture. Often lonely and confused about the role they should play within the church and the world leads, introverts are vulnerable to depression, isolation, and despondency. McHugh distinguishes between introversion and shyness, and helps the introvert reader understand how participation in communal life is possible and why it is necessary.

The next few chapters explore ways the Christian introvert may thrive as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 4, “Introverted Spirituality,” introduces ways that Christian introverts may deepen their relationship with God. These ways complement the introverted temperament. McHugh describes contemplative spirituality. His outline of the examen on page 74, though concise, is practical. And his counsel to adopt a “rule of life” is especially good. He speaks several times of learning to discern the voice of God. Though I would gloss this differently, what he says is consistent with my own take on divine guidance.

Chapter 5, “Introverted Community and Relationships,” admonishes the introvert to re-engage in communal life and offers practical suggestions for doing this, consistent with the introvert temperament. McHugh speaks as an introvert who has practiced what he preaches. He attests to the refreshment that becomes possible for the introvert in community, and to the joy that accompanies meaningful participation.

Chapter 6, “The Ability to Lead,” speaks to me. On the Myers-Briggs personality evaluation, I’m an INTJ. Translated, this means I have stronger tendencies to probe below the surface for what is important, rather than seek out concrete experiences, to make decisions based on deliberation, and to prefer structure over spontaneity in many (though certainly not all) areas of my life. For all of my adult life I’ve had a leadership role of some kind within the church and within society. Leadership feels and looks different for the introvert. But the introvert leader brings important skills to the table. Models of introverted leadership include Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jonathan Edwards. Old Testament saints Moses and Jacob probably were introverts. The young pastor Timothy, so important to the ministry of St. Paul, may have been an introvert (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Then there’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary, who was Martha’s sister (see Luke 10:38-42). I suppose Esther, the Old Testament figure who changed the course of history for Israel, was an introvert. Not bad company, really.

(Diane Hamilton offers a sample list of celebrities, showing some famous extroverts and some famous introverts.)

Chapter 7, “Leading as Ourselves,” is one of the longest and most valuable chapters. McHugh extends his treatment of leadership and gets into specific details of preaching as an introvert, functioning as a spiritual director, the differences in leading extroverts and leading other introverts. He writes very candidly on this subject.

A consistent critique of my ministry has been a lack of communication. What people sometimes consider to be my flaws betrays their extroverted expectations for communication.

Speaking from experience, I can say that there is real lived wisdom in that statement. University students, for example, expect—and often prefer—extrovert communication. This is reinforced in countless ways. At the graduate level, many of them aspire to be the kind of teacher that they expect their teachers to be. Which is to say: extroverts (in the Jungian sense). But they are not all extroverts themselves, and they never will be. So they need models of introvert leadership in teaching and mentoring. Also, they might benefit from considering what an introvert teacher offers that most extrovert teachers do not, because of how they’re wired. (This topic deserves several posts at another time!)

Chapter 8, “Introverted Evangelism,” begins, “An introverted evangelist? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Very little has been written about personal evangelism that doesn’t assume a extrovert personality. This chapter is an exception. McHugh stresses that evangelism is needed and occurs in different contexts. Many contexts—some of them very natural and routine—are overlooked. And these often are contexts where introverts thrive. Here’s one tidbit that may interest you in this aspect of evangelism:

My evangelistic conversations these days resemble spiritual direction more than they do preaching. . . . Because introverts process internally, we can offer a nonjudgmental posture and others will be comfortable opening up their lives to us.

I’m a big fan of “conversational evangelism.” But many extroverts are clumsy in their use of this approach.

Note: McHugh and I differ about how rational argumentation and lifestyle persuasion relate to each other. Whereas he places them in tension with each other, I see them as complementary, no matter who we happen to be conversing with.

Suggestion: For more on conversational and lifestyle evangelism, I recommend the book Lifestyle Evangelism: Learning to Open Your Life to Those Around You, by Joe Aldrich, and Conversational Evangelism: How to Listen and Speak So You Can Be Heard, by Norman Geisler and David Geisler.

Chapter 9, “Introverts in Church,” surveys the diverse ways that Christians do church, and relates each of these to the interaction styles of introverts, who may or may not be Christians. McHugh describes some wonderfully creative ways to energize the worship experience and communal life for the many introverts who are otherwise neglected by standard protocols. I know of Christians who have never felt at home in churches they’ve attended. After awhile, many of them begin to feel that something is wrong with them. Some even begin looking beyond Christianity for spiritual sustenance. It is a grievous error of the church to miss what’s being done to these dear believers.

Introverts in the Church includes “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” for each chapter. How fitting it is, in a book for and about the Christian introvert’s discipleship, to place reflection and discussion in that order! These are not perfunctory questions. They probe and delve deeply in ways that will help the introvert understand herself more fully and will inspire new ways of being in community with and leadership among other believers.

There pages of “Further Reading” include categorized lists of other resources. On evangelism, McHugh recommends Mike Bechtle, Rebecca Manley Pippert, and Rick Richardson. He lists three memoirs by “introverted authors,” Anne Lamont, Donald Miller, and Lauren Winner. For more detailed study of introversion, he suggests Susan Cain, Laurie A. Helgoe, and Marti Olsen Laney. There are other recommendations for “Community and Relationships,” “General Personality Type,” “Leadership,” “Spiritual Direction,” and “Spirituality.”

The book I’ve found most useful for delineating personality theory and personality types is Please Understand Me II: Character, Temperament, Intelligence, by David Keirsey. Basic to the theory is Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. McHugh also recommends and frequently cites Type-Talk: The 16 Personality Types That Determine How We Live, by Otto Kroeger and Jane M. Theusen.

Two books I would add to McHugh’s list are:

Other links:

Get a Grip on Greek


In the 1970s and 1980s I took several courses on New Testament Greek, at both grad and undergrad levels. I don’t need reminding how long ago that was! Like so many others, I “let my Greek go.” So my proficiency dropped dramatically. Call it my own personal “Greek tragedy.”

After investing the effort in studying Greek, I hated to see it go to waste. I’ve made good use of my knowledge at times, but I haven’t been very deliberate about sustaining and improving my grip on Greek. Now I’ve come across a little book that addresses this very typical reality—Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People, by Constantine R. Campbell.

Campbell’s book of 90 pages is organized into ten mini-chapters.

  1. Read Every Day
  2. Burn Your Interlinear
  3. Use Software Tools Wisely
  4. Make Vocabulary Your Friend
  5. Practice Your Parsing
  6. Read Fast
  7. Read Slow
  8. Use Your Senses
  9. Get Your Greek Back
  10. Putting It All Together

There’s advice in an appendix on getting it right the first time, for those who are just now beginning to learn NT Greek. The book ends with a list of resources truly useful to the person who would follow the practical advice that Campbell gives.

There are no stunning new revelations here about how to stay on top of a language you’ve learned. It’s mostly common sense—but it’s wise and inspiring common sense.

The author maintains a blog—Read Better, Preach Better—where he offers practical advice on biblical study and Bible-based preaching. The chapters of his book are adapted from a series of blog posts about keeping your Greek skills intact. Each chapter concludes with a few comments or “blog responses” from his readers. It’s a clever idea whose potential, I think, is never fully exploited. The value of including these responses depends, of course, on the value of the responses themselves.

Campbell uses Accordance software in his own regimen of Greek review and New Testament study. I’ve used this tool myself. It is powerful and convenient.

Two resources especially recommended by Campbell are:

I concur with these recommendations.

If you need brushing up, or you have the inclination to teach yourself New Testament Greek, I strongly recommend the published work of my friend Bill Mounce:

Mounce provides a wealth of additional tools, including his FlashWorks vocabulary drilling program, at his Teknia website.

For audio assistance with Greek study and review, these tools will prove useful:

Cover of "Sing and Learn New Testament Gr...

Cover via Amazon

Finally, you must poke around at the Institute of Biblical Greek website.

At least twice monthly, I teach an adult Bible study. Lately I’ve been introducing group members to the benefits of Greek study. We are currently studying 1 John, with an emphasis on Bible study technique. If you happen to live in North Orange County, California, you’re welcome to join us!

The Adventurous Reader


What is an “adventurous reader”? I’m two chapters into a novel by Jedediah Berry, titled The Manual of Detection. The CIP data on the copyright page indicate that subjects for this work of fiction include (1) private investigators, (2) femmes fatales, and (3) criminals.

Inside the front cover are three pages of accolades, many of them praising the book for its departure from conventions and its playful spirit. The Wall Street Journal says that the author “defies mystery novel conventions, but adventurous readers who stay with his strange and fabulous debut work will be handsomely rewarded.”

I wonder, what is an “adventurous reader”?

Here are some possibilities. An “adventurous reader” is someone who:

  1. reads literature in any genre that contains adventure: fantasy, science fiction, the detective procedural, etc.;
  2. steps outside his normal reading habits or patterns to read beyond “other stuff”;
  3. lives more fully within the pages of books he reads;
  4. reads what others in his field, or in his peer group, or in his circle of friends do not read;
  5. takes on authors who are challenging, difficult, mind-stretching;
  6. devotes much of his reading time to authors with whom he disagrees
  7. reads backwards, starting with the last word on the last page;
  8. reads only every other page.

There must be other possibilities. Is the adventure to be found in the act of reading—its how—or in the object read? Both?

I guess I consider myself an adventurous reader—though I think “adventuresome” might be the better word. But why? I read “broadly.” I’m patient about finding “just the right book.” But I will sometimes take a chance on something with little to go on.

Does the adventuresome reader read slowly, or quickly? Is speed irrelevant? Or has speed got to do with being one kind of adventuresome reader? Wouldn’t it be an adventure to read five novels in a day, allowing only thirty minutes for each? Or to pick slowly through a complex text, in an effort to notice everything worthwhile—what is written, how it is composed, the contribution it makes to our knowledge or a fulfilled life?

Adventure is a pretty pliable concept. Applied to the reader, it has interesting possibilities.

Are you an “adventurous reader”? Why would you say so? Do you know someone how is more adventurous than yourself?

How to Write a Lot—A Review


Cover of "How to Write a Lot: A Practical...

Cover via Amazon

Maybe you’d like to write a lot. Maybe you have to write a lot. Here’s a book you may like a lot.

The book is published by the American Psychological Association. Silvia, a relatively young scholar, teaches and writes about psychology. In this book, he applies his own eclectic method in  psychology to the ordeal of writing as an academic.

I say eclectic because Silvia expects his counsel to be congenial to psychologists of various stripes:

  • developmental psychologists
  • cognitive psychologists
  • clinical psychologists
  • emotion psychologists
  • psychologists with interdisciplinary interests

What he writes is for all academics who wish to be more productive writers. But he does advise his peers in psychology a little more directly on occasion. When he says, “Our academic journals radiate bad writing,” he means journals in his discipline. But scholars across the disciplines will recognize the sort.

Silvia pokes fun in good humor. He notes that “psychologists love bad words,” then points out that “they call them deficient or suboptimal instead of bad.” He means, of course, that words like “deficient” and “suboptimal” are often needlessly “erudite,” and therefore bad for good writing.

“Psychologists like writing about the existing literature. Is there a nonexistent literature that I should be reading and referencing?” It’s nice to hear a psychologist asking such a philosophical question. (I’m afraid that some philosophers, in response, will get caught up in analyzing “should” and explaining the scope of relevant research literature in terms of counterfactuals and alternative worlds.)

There are chapters here on:

  • Writing articles—”Your paper might be rejected once or twice before it finds a good home, but a good paper will always find a home.”
  • Writing books—”If you have something to say, write a book.”
  • Writing with style—”Your first drafts should sound like they were hastily translated from Icelandic by a nonnative speaker.”

But the crucial chapters are two, three, and four (pp. 11-57):

  • Chapter 2: “Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot”
  • Chapter 3: “Motivational Tools”
  • Chapter 4: “Starting Your Own Agraphia Group”

Silvia’s aim is to introduce the reader to “a practical system for becoming a productive academic writer.” He acknowledges the irony of writing such a short book on how to write a lot. But, he says, “there isn’t much to say. The system is simple.”

The “system” is indeed simple. It comes down to this. Create a manageable writing routine and stick to it. Specifics include:

  • Follow a schedule (a little writing every weekday, if possible).
  • Set long-term goals for completing writing projects.
  • Set concrete goals for each scheduled writing session.
  • Prioritize your writing.
  • Avoid binge writing.
  • Monitor your progress.
  • Permit yourself a measure of “windfall writing” when it comes naturally.
  • Always engage in some writing-related task during the scheduled writing session.
  • Settle for the simplest of writing implements to be sure you’re always able to write on schedule.
  • Be content with whatever writing environment you’re permitted by your circumstances.
  • Expect a flood of quality writing ideas as a result of regular writing.
  • Join an “agraphia” group.

All of this is excellent advice. Much of it is common sense, often repeated in “the literature” on writing. But such common sense is seldom practiced.

Here are three areas where Silvia’s book might have been stronger:

  1. His comments on writer’s block are slight and mildly dismissive. He’s onto something when he says that “scheduled writers don’t get writer’s block.” But even scheduled writers can be unproductive. This relates to my next point.
  2. He could say more about how to plan scheduled work so that it is completed on schedule. It isn’t enough to (a) decide on a project to be completed, (b) sit down to write regularly about that topic, and (c) set concrete goals for each writing session. Even if every concrete goal is mission critical, regular writing will not ensure project completion. A disciplined writer doesn’t just write daily (or whatever “regularly” means in his case). He writes towards completion of a project.
  3. He understates the value of style in academic writing. This is a bit surprising. Silvia himself writes with engaging style. And he devotes a chapter to style. But oddly, the chapter dedicated to the topic is preoccupied with aids to writing strong, clear sentences. This is a minimalist approach to style. It derives from the notion that “as academics, we’re not creating high literature” (p. 26). This outlook may enable the blocked academic writer. But I’m a strong advocate for writing that engages as it informs.

Most scholars, even the most-published ones I imagine, would like to be more productive writers. Paul Silvia presents a method that works. The book moves chapter by chapter through the standard barriers to productive, anxiety-free academic writing. It’s a quick read with much practical advice, some of it on points not mentioned here.

Dodgy Ruminations about an Afterlife


“God bless non-scientific narratives,” writes Jacques Belinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University. Of course, this is with tongue in cheek, since, though he’s Jewish, Berlinerblau is an atheist.

He speaks sincerely, however, about a hopefulness grounded in certain non-scientific narratives, for he’d like to believe that there’s an afterlife. Actually, he finds it hard to believe that there is not an afterlife of some kind.

So he believes that God does not exist, and sorta-kinda believes that there is an afterlife.

This lede sets the context for Berlinerblau’s review, titled “You’re Dead. Now What?” of four books on the topic:

Berlinblau is a touch dismissive of D’Souza. But Berlinblau, I believe, is right that there really isn’t good strictly scientific evidence for an afterlife.

If Berlinerblau’s review of Frohock is rooted in a reliable summary of the book, I’d say it’s worth a look. But it sounds like Frohock is working from some sort of pantheist or neo-pagan metaphysics (or worldview). I wish Berlinerblau had said more about this.

This reviewer makes Casey’s book sounds especially dull. But he has positive things to say about it. And I must say that the pages of this book are cloaked in the most impressive cover of the bunch.

Johnston appears to be one of those philosophers who has to be brilliant simply because it’s frequently impossible to understand what he’s saying. I suspect he’s of the “continental” variety. Berlinerblau’s sample quote from the book is almost a dead give-away.

I probably will read Frohock, eventually. He’s supposed to be ambivalent about whether science could yield evidence for an afterlife. And yet, says Berlinerblau, he’s a materialist. Like Berlinerblau, I find this confusing. If an individual person is completely constituted by material stuff and its physical organization, and this stuff dissolves—or its structure breaks down—following death, then what is the nature of the life beyond death?

The review is published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, of all places. This indicates re-entry of the possibility of an afterlife into academic surmise. Until recently, most scholars would rather die than enter a conversation about such things. Possibly, most scholars still have this preference. (It has not always been so.)

It’s equally fascinating that the traditional Christian doctrine of the afterlife is waved off with an almost pious flick of the wrist. (Check out the review and see if you agree.)

Berlinerblau’s book review enters a general conversation that is cautiously making its way back into serious discourse. But this discourse is dominated by a distinctly secular hope for a pleasant afterlife. Does this sound to anyone else like whistling past the graveyard?

Afternotes:

1. Berlinerblau adorns his essay with a choice literary quote:

The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop.

—Saul Bellow, Ravelstei

2. Christopher Benson reviews the Casey book, together with A Very Brief History of Eternity, by Carlos Eire, for the Christian periodical Books and Culture. Benson titles his review “Without End—Changing conceptions of the afterlife.” Indeed.

***

What do you think?

  1. What is the best evidence for an afterlife?
  2. If you believe in an afterlife, what will it be like?
  3. What is the best argument that there is no afterlife?
  4. Would there have to be a God for there to be an afterlife?
  5. Are you hoping for an afterlife?
  6. Are you expecting an afterlife?

Mysterious Opening Lines: Le Carré, Ludlum, and Others


GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).

First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Read more of this post

%d bloggers like this: