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.

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How to Write a Lot—A Review


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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.

Why Are Academics Such Bad Writers?


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“Our academic journals radiate bad writing—I store my journals on the shelf farthest from my desk to avoid the fallout.” This is Paul Silvia’s take on the modus operandi of far too many academic writers.

What is “bad writing”?

It’s writing that …

  • uses impenetrable English;
  • revels in ambiguity;
  • requires backtracking just to follow the point;
  • ensures a slight readership by the specialization of its vocabulary;
  • deploys arcane symbolism that intimidates readers;
  • can be recommended as a soporific, even to specialists in the same field.

That’s my list.

Paul Silvia believes there are three reasons for bad writing among academic authors:

1. They want to sound smart.
2. They never learned how to write well.
3. They don’t spend enough time writing.

My list would be longer and more focused:

1. They don’t know good writing from bad writing. If all they read are journal articles and academic monographs, then they’re on a steady diet of poor writing. The best writing is nourished by close reading of the best of writers, both inside and outside one’s discipline.

2. They don’t believe that good writing matters. “Academic writing gets published without concern for stylistic quality, so why bother?” There are two reasons to bother. First, the academic writer should pursue excellence, rather than what is commonplace. Second, the best writing attracts more readers. The ratio of readers to authors of journal essays is appalling. Monographs are pricey because the expected readership is low. But the best writers within a discipline, because they reward their readers with more than originality of content, are read by more people, and they are read more faithfully by people who like their writing.

3. They believe that good writing will reduce their publication prospects. More academic authors are looking for opportunities to publish in the broader market. Their prospects are dim if they can’t write with style. Those who are content to write as academics for academics should understand that quality of writing that does not compromise quality of scholarship has a better chance of publication. And for those who write for interdisciplinary journals, the need is even greater, since non-specialists will need more help in their reading and more reasons to keep on reading.

4. They confuse good writing with casual writing, or popularizing. Writing with style means one thing when writing for peers, and something else when writing to inform or persuade Joe Six-Pack. A good writer understands this and adjusts her style accordingly.

5. They don’t realize that good writing can be learned. I have three suggestions for those who wish to improve their writing style.

First, read others who write with style. Observe their practices. Notice how they employ metaphors and similes. Look for sharp and arresting turns of phrase. Study transitions from paragraph to paragraph and from section to section. Look for patterns that explain their capacity to sustain interest. Think of this as a component in the research you do for your writing projects.

Second, spend time in carefully-selected books that point the way to improved style. Books of this kind should practice what they preach. Here are a few that I recommend:

Third, write more—with deliberate attention to style. Be patient with the process. Don’t expect too much too soon. Write a little everyday.

6. They’re impatient in their writing. Writing well, with style, takes more time and effort. Many writers simply don’t want to spend the time. They’re undisciplined writers who fancy themselves sufficiently productive simply because they have countless publications to their credit.

7. They think that to be a good writer you have to be a perfectionist. Not true. What you have to be is patient, persistent, and prioritized. Only the writer with meager styling skills believes that perfectionism is required. But a practiced writer, who habitually attends to matters of style, comes to write more naturally and comfortably. I venture to say that the best stylists have the easiest time of it and have the most fun doing it.

Source:

More good reading about bad writing:

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Writing Tips: The Moleskine Method, Part 2


In the previous entry, I introduced the Moleskine, describing its features and plugging it to writers who are on the go or need help with organization. In this entry I explain why I think writers should get comfortable with writing in longhand—a skill that’s required if you’re to make use of what I will now call “The Moleskine method.” Read more of this post

If You Don’t Feel Like Writing, You Can Always Read About It


You want to write but you can get going? Do the next best thing—read about writing. But make sure what you’re reading is written well. This is my list of recommendations for reading that leads to improved writing. This is kind of an annotated bibliography. I include a favorite quote from each item. Read more of this post

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