Use Paramedic Editing to Improve Your Writing

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On one hand, there’s no shortage of advice on how to edit your writing. On the other, most of the advice is either generic or too prescriptive. Does a method exist that is clear, structured, and helpful? Yes.

In his work, Revising Prose, Professor Richard Lanham introduced the Paramedic Method. It’s a technique to avoid what he refers to as “overwriting,” or using excessive repetition and unnecessary words. This strategy gives you specific steps instead of vague advice.

What is Paramedic Editing? Let’s dive in.

What is the Paramedic Method?

Lanham devised the Paramedic Method to combat the verbose “Official Style” of writing he encountered in academic writing. We encounter this style of writing far too often. We are asked “to participate in the hiring process” instead of “help hire a candidate.”

Teachers write “This sentence is in need of an active verb” instead of “Your sentence needs an active verb.”

Conference attendees are told “The theme of this year’s conference is to highlight the need to use interactive Zoom meetings” instead of “The conference will highlight the use of interactive Zoom meetings.”

Lanham aimed to reduce the amount of “Official Style” writing. To do so, he created a system that identifies key areas of writing that need to be improved.

Step One–Circle or Highlight Prepositions

The first step of the paramedic method is to identify the prepositions in a sentence. A preposition describes the connection between a set of words.  “The frog above the log” is different from “the frog in the log.”

Prepositions are short words such as at, above, between, past, with. You can find lists of prepositions, such as here, but most prepositions can fit between a frog and a log, as in “above,” “in,” and “behind.”

You can print out a document to highlight the prepositions, or you can use the highlighter in your document. Let’s do that with the first sentence of this section.

The first stepof the paramedic method is to identify the prepositions in a sentence.

This sentence contains two prepositional phrases. Before we see decide this sentence needs fixing, let’s move on to step two.

Step Two–Circle or Highlight “is” Verbs

Next, circle or highlight all “is” verbs. Also called to-be verbs, they include is, are, was, were. Sometimes an “is” verb is needed or difficult to avoid, as this post explains. However, a passive verbs often hides or buries the action.

The first stepof the paramedic method is to identify the prepositions in a sentence.

Step Three–Ask Where is the Action?

Then decide what is being done in the sentence. This is the action. In this sentence, the writer should identify the prepositions.

The first stepof the paramedic method is to identify the prepositions in a sentence.

Step Four–Put This Action into an Active Verb

As you can see, the writer buried the action. It could be rewritten like this:

First, identify the prepositions in a sentence.

Step Five–Put the Doer First

Lanham calls this step “Start fast: no slow windups. Put the subject first, followed by the action, and then add on other information as needed. And that is what the sentence does. It contains an understood [you] as the subject, followed by the action, and then what the subject is being asked to do.

Paramedic Editing: Bottom Line

You do not need to analyze an entire text when something seems wordy. However, the more you use the Paramedic Editing method, you internalize this style of writing. Eventually, you will write crisp and concise sentences without thinking about the process.

A final tip: Use the search and replace feature to identify “is” verbs and prepositions if you wish to analyze an entire document. Or, use this online modified version of paramedic editing.

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