Use the Paramedic Method to Make Sentences Clear and Direct

Novice academic writers often try to make their writing sound more sophisticated or professional by emulating the complex prose they’re reading. But like all novices, they make mistakes and can produce sentences that are very difficult to read and understand.  Here’s one:

Through this reading, and stating what I learned from the reading Success, Victims, and Prodigies: “Master” and “Little” Cultural narratives in the Literacy Narrative Genre, which through my active and critical reading, I was able to create responses in my Literacy Archive paper that were critical for my argument.

Richard Lanham

In Revising Prose, Richard Lanham offers writers a method for taming such sentences, and making them much clearer and more direct. His “Paramedic Method” goes as follows:

  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into – click on the link for a list of the most commonly used prepositions in English)
  2. Draw a box around the “is” verb forms
  3. Ask, “Where’s the action?” and “Who is kicking whom?” Move the actor into the subject.
  4. Change the “kicking action” into a simple verb
  5. Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups

Let’s try the Paramedic Method on our sentence:

    1. Circle the prepositions:
    2. Draw a box around the “is” verb forms:
    3.  Ask, “Where’s the action?”  Ask, “Who’s kicking whom?”  The sample sentence is hard to read because its action comes very late. We need to move the actor and the action into the subject slot near the start of the sentence. What’s happening in this sentence?  There’s a lot happening here. Someone, the author, “I”  is reading and learning. But those actions support the most important action in the sentence: the author is creating a response.
    4. Once we move the most important action to the front of the sentence, change the verb into a simple form, and put the supporting actions in logical order, the sentence looks like this:I created responses that were critical for my argument through reading and stating what I learned from my active and critical reading of the reading “Success, Victims and Prodigies: ‘Master’ and ‘Little’ Cultural Narratives in the Literacy Narrative Genre.Notice those prepositions (were, for, through, from)? We’ll need to do something about some of them. But first, let’s take care of Step 5.
    5. Eliminate unnecessary slow windups. By “unnecessary slow windups,” Lanham means phrases such as “What I mean is…,” “By this I hope to show….” Our sample sentence starts with introductory subordinate clauses containing useful information. But we have already improved the pace of the sentence by moving the main action to the front of the sentence.  Now let’s see what we can do about those remaining prepositions. Often prepositions can simply be removed from the sentence.

      I created responses that were critical for my final argument through by reading actively and critically and stating explaining what I learned from “Success, Victims and Prodigies: ‘Master’ and ‘Little’ Cultural Narratives in the Literacy Narrative Genre.”
      The sentence reads pretty clearly and directly now, and is much easier to understand. You’ve probably noticed that there are some prepositions left (for, by, and from). But this is a pretty complicated sentence, and prepositions indicate the relationships between parts of the sentence, so when you want to express complex ideas, some prepositions are necessary.

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