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.

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Excellent Copyediting Tutorial on the Current Chicago Manual of Style

 : The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications (Paperback) by Amy Einsohn, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted August 17, 2011 (35 of 37 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews.

While teaching UC Berkeley’s courses in “The Professional Sequence in Editing,” I regularly assigned selected exercises in this book’s earlier editions as preparation for more complex exercises in class. The students’ evaluations of the book were always favorable.

Copyeditor's Handbook: Einsohn

This edition presents a fast-track introduction to the many changes in the Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition, 2010. I particularly appreciate the handbook’s references to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. (See my review of this great usage dictionary on Amazon.) Ever since its publication in 1989, I have regularly enjoyed reading MWDEU’s scholarly entries. These 2300 entries, often witty, drawn mainly from literary sources are a refreshing contrast to Garner’s stridently prescriptive injunctions in the Chicago Manual, drawn mainly from journalistic sources.

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HIGH-IMPACT TOOLS for WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION

★ Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling (Paperback) by Donald Maass, reviewed by C. J. Singh  on  amazon.com, copy posted October 21, 2012 (17 of 19 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews

In the opening chapter, Donald Maass introduces his book’s basic premise: In the 21st century “high-impact novels utilize what is best about literary and commercial fictions,” transcending the dichotomy (pages 2-3). Maass equates “high-impact” with a novel’s inclusion on the New York Times bestseller list: the longer it stays on the list, the higher its impact.

The second chapter’s title “The Death of Genre” proclaims assimilation of commercial or genre fiction into literary fiction: “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works” (page 13). As examples, he cites Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate — a literary and thriller; and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union–a literary and murder mystery.

However, the dichotomy flourishes in MFA programs in American universities. “Literary fiction differs from genre fiction fundamentally in the fact that the former is character-driven, the latter plot-driven….Many, perhaps most, teachers of fiction writing do not accept manuscripts in genre.” That’s a quote from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition), the most widely used textbook in fiction-writing courses. (See my review on amazon.) This dichotomy first arose from early twentieth century modernist and mid-century postmodernist literary movements. Recently, the excesses of postmodernism have led to a reaction for which literary theorists have not yet found a label and are calling it post-postmodernist literary works. (See my note at the end of this review for a brief exposition of these movements.)

Maass’s subsequent chapters present tools for writing high-impact fiction. Some of these tools are similar to those in his earlier books such as The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques. (See my review on Amazon.) Can this book be comprehended without reading his earlier books on craft? Yes.

The third chapter, “The Inner Journey,” presents excerpts from several novels such as Joshilyn Jackson’s Gods in Alabama published in 2005, and Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, published in 2009. Can these excerpts be understood without having read the novels? Yes. Maass skillfully presents synopses of each novel excerpted.

The fourth chapter, “The Outer Journey,” focuses on plot, citing excerpts from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, published in 2005, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, published in 2009.

The fifth chapter, “Standout Characters” cites examples from Markus Zasuk’s The Book Thief, published in 2005 and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, published in 2009. Also Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, cited in the previous chapter, underscoring high-impact novel’s requirement of both plot- and character-driven writing.

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