A Fast Method for Revising Good Writing into Great Writing

★ Revising Prose (5th Edition) (Paperback) by Richard Lanham, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted March 12, 2010 (55 of 55 people found the review helpful.)  – See all my reviews.

Years ago, I attended a weekend workshop for instructors of college composition that was led by Professor Richard Lanham, author of Revising Prose , visiting from UCLA, and Professor Joseph Williams, author of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace , visiting from the University of Chicago. They presented witty and lucid summaries of their books, Lanham focusing on revising at the sentence level and Williams on paragraphs. Although their books have gone through several editions since, the core concepts remain the same. Both self-teaching books are on my Amazon Listmania’s list Expository Writing: Top Ten Books.”

In the preface to “Revising Prose (5th edition)” Lanham notes: “Writing may have been invented to keep bureaucratic accounts….As the world has become bureaucratized, so has its language….Revising Prose was written as a supplementary text for any course that requires writing. Because it addresses a single discrete style, “Revising Prose” can be rule-based to a degree that prose analysis rarely permits. This set of rules — the Paramedic Method –in turn allows the book to be self-teaching.”

In each of the five editions of “Revising Prose,” Lanham added fresh examples and exercises to its core content: the Paramedic Method comprising eight steps as follows.

1. Circle the prepositions;
2. Circle the “is” forms;
3. Find the action;
4. Put this action in a simple (not compound) active verb;
5. Start fast – no slow windups;
6. Read the passage aloud with emphasis and feeling;
7. Write out each sentence on a blank screen or sheet of paper and mark off its basic rhythmic units with a “/”;
8. Mark off sentence length with a “/.”

Basically, Lanham’s Paramedic Method advises you to delete prepositional phrases and “is” forms and replace them with active verbs.

Below are four brief examples and a test-yourself exercise from the book.

Original sentence: “Physical satisfaction is the most obvious of the consequences of premarital sex.”
Revision: “Premarital sex satisfies!Obviously!” (page 3).
Instead of 12 words, 4. Lanham labels this achieved concision as the “Lard Factor.” It’s computed as the number of words in the original sentence minus the number of words in the revised sentence, divided by the original number of words. Here, the Lard Factor is: 12 minus 4, divided by 12 equals 0.66 or 66 percent.

Original sentence: “Perception is the process of extracting information from stimulation emanating from objects, places, and events in the world around us.”
Revision: “Perception extracts information from the outside world” (page 8).
Instead of 21 words, 7. The original sentence has five prepositions, the revision just one — preposition deletion ratio of 5 to 1. Lard Factor computes to 66 percent.

Original: “In light of the pervasive problem of overcrowding at UC Lone Pine, providing another coffee house on campus would offer the university’s growing population some kind of compensatory convenience.”
Revision: “Overcrowded UC Lone Pine needs another coffee house” (page 70).
Lard Factor: 75 percent

Original: “Hypertext was invented to facilitate the process of navigating through a presentation of interrelated topics.” Revision: “Hypertext was invented to navigate through interrelated topics” (page 72).
Lard Factor: 55 percent

In this complete book, Lanham provides 35 exercises for the readers to try on their own. Let’s pick one at random.

Exercise 14: Original: “The manner in which behavior first shown in a conflict situation may become fixed so that it persists after the conflict has passed is then discussed” (page 154).
My revision: Next, discussion proceeds to behavior persistence after conflict.
Instead of 26 words, 8.
Lard Factor: 70 percent.
If the original sentence comes from one or more authors, I’d revise it: Next, I/we discuss behavior persistence after conflict.
Lard Factor: 73 percent.
or: Next, I/we discuss post-conflict behavior persistence.
Lard Factor: 80 percent.
Try it. You’d probably do better than my quick efforts.

In “Revising Prose,” his witty and blessedly brief book, Lanham gifts a five-star jewel to all expository writers.

[Addendum: Richard Lanham’s also appears in a less expensive version Longman Guide to Revising Prose that reprints the 134-page main text. The excluded 30 pages comprise a brief glossary of grammatical terms and 35 exercises for the reader. Since the 35 exercises in the complete book do not present the author’s solutions anyway, I suggest an easy procedure to make either version self-teaching as follows.

First, read the book through — it won’t take long; it’s slim.
Second, note down on an index card each example of the flabby sentences in the main text that includes the author’s solution.
Third, do each of these examples on your own and compare your solution with the author’s.
(For my sample solution to one of the 35 exercises without the author’s solution, take a look near the end of this review of the complete book.)]



  1. You are right. Lanham’s paramedic method is for nonfiction, particularly inflated bureaucratic and some academic prose. It’s not for fiction. See my review of Brooks Landon’s “How to Build Great Sentences” on amazon.com. — c. j. singh


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