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Using the Paramedic Method to Rescue Your Writing


Readers and writers alike agree on one point: Nothing weighs down prose like heavy, clunky writing. As an author, you desperately want your readers to know exactly what you mean, to perfectly paint for them the picture you've spent countless hours creating. Unfortunately, this often leads to overwriting.

While this is a common literary sin, it's also a major misdeed. Essentially, overwriting occurs when you've made your point, but you keep on writing anyway. More often than not, that unique word or style of phrase doesn't impress or capture the reader; it halts the action and pulls them from the story.

Clarity is key if you want reader retention, and the Paramedic Method will be the best approach to ensure both readability and clarity. Created by Dr. Richard A. Lanham, author and UCLA professor, this approach puts the editing role on your shoulders, providing you a helpful guide for the eradication of redundant words and overly elaborate phrasing.

This approach to sentence-level editing is an industry standard used by many authors to prune excessively wordy sections that pull focus from your story. Become your own line editor and follow these seven simple steps to nail the Paramedic Method:

1. Highlight the prepositions and prepositional phrases

The most common prepositions include: at, by, for, on, of, off, to, from, and with, though this list is not complete. Prepositions act as the glue that attaches noun and pronouns to verbs or other pronouns. While important, their primary role is to connect, so each preposition essentially means more dead weight in the sentence.

2. Highlight the "is" and "to be" verb forms

The passive verb "to be" and its variations can alter sentence structure, reversing it so that the subject is acted on, instead of the subject taking an active role and acting on the object through an active verb. That sounds complicated, but it basically means to always avoid passive sentences that pull the reader from your story.

3. Identify the key action, use a simple verb, and placing the doer as subject

Drawn-out, overly lengthy phrasing is intended more for academic writing, though it should be used wisely in every form. For fiction, find any long-winded example of phrasing in your action and replace with a more succinct, snappy verb.

If the object is first, then the sentence is passive, something you want to avoid in droves. Use this step to restructure your sentence so that the subject comes first. Think: Subject – Verb – Object, e.g., "Who is kicking whom?"

4. Nix any unnecessary introductions

Don't waste your readers' time by dancing around your point. They don't need to be introduced to every paragraph, so keep an eye out for introductory phrases. As mentioned in the previous step, get to the point quickly by introducing your subject and their action (using a concise verb) as early as possible.

A good way to identify an unnecessary introductory phrase is by removing it to test whether the sentence context has changed. If it hasn't, the introduction hasn't earned its place and should be cut.

5. Cut every instance of redundancy, i.e., unnecessary words and phrases

This step, along with the previous point, is the clean-up portion of the Paramedic Method. Find words that essentially illustrate the same point, as well as drawn-out phrases that could be replaced to sharpen your prose.

Use the Lanham Lard Factor (LF) approach. Compare the number of words removed with the number in the original sentence to best see just how much fat is being cut.

6. Study sentence length

Flowery prose and adjective-filled sentences are a thing of the past. Readers today aren't interested in long paragraphs, no matter how colorful your writing is. Attention spans are dwindling, and it's important to cater to reader tastes, so be direct and clear in your writing, letting your creativity flow in a controlled manner.

Author Martin Cutts put it succinctly: More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page. That being said, a series of consecutive short sentences can dull the reading experience. Vary sentence length to keep that spark alive.

7. Read the passage aloud

Voicing your sentence brings it to life, along with any areas that need attention. Reading silently in your mind, means you're reading what you intended to write, not what is actually on the page.

Frequent perusals can result in your eyes becoming somewhat blind to your writing, so errors can become invisible in time. A common trick writers use is to begin with the last sentence and work backwards to avoid this issue.

The paramedic method in action

Example #1: It is a part of my plan to make every effort to tidy up my writing so that any person who chooses to read my novel can immerse themselves fully in the prose and picture every scene in their imagination.

Revised #1: I will restructure my writing so my readers can better immerse themselves in my prose and create vivid images.

The Lanham Lard Factor (LF) = 40 / 19.

Here, we have a number of prepositions and prepositional phrases that are bloating the sentence with unnecessary weight, along with one example of an "is" verb that adds an element of passivity.

The action is lost in detail, particularly in the long introductory phrase that halts the overall point. It's wordy and features one clear example of redundancy. Of course, readers will picture every scene "in their imagination." Where else would they picture it?

While both original and revised examples feature one sentence, the first is far too long for a line tasked with making one simple point. Read aloud, the revised section has a clear and concise purpose and point, whereas the original drags the intention way down in its somewhat run-on style.

Example #2: The Paramedic Method was developed by Dr. Richard A. Lanham after many years of thorough research, and though this approach is solely his own achievement and is used by many other authors, it is built on writing tactics and methods created by past authors and early literary scholars.

Revised #2: Dr. Richard A. Lanham applies observed and foundational literary tactics to create his own writing approach: the Paramedic Method.

The Lanham Lard Factor (LF) = 48 / 19.

Again, a selection of prepositions and prepositional phrases that add an extra layer of unnecessary fat, though the effect here is not as severe as in the Example #1.

Three instances of the "is" verb form appear here, and it reads as repetitive while drawing out the sentence. It becomes clear that the excessive use is unnecessary when we see that this verb form doesn't feature at all in the revised example.

The point here is that Dr. Lanham developed a literary method, but that point, the subsequent comment on its creation, and the overall action, again get a little lost in the detail. The subject, Dr. Richard A. Lanham, introduces the sentence now, cutting the passive voice and unnecessary detail, getting straight to the point.

In terms of redundancy, "thorough research" implies the good doctor spent "many years" studying a variety of literary methods, and since in-depth research doesn't occur over a long weekend, we can safely cut the mention of time spent. This might seem pedantic, but achieving word economy should always be a priority.

Again, the original example sees its point drowning in detail. The revised example uses a colon as additional punctuation to add some variety to sentence rhythm, which is particularly evident when the sentence is read aloud.

Additional literary do's and don'ts encouraged by the paramedic method

Additional paramedic method do's and don'ts
Here are some additional paramedic method pointers to keep in mind.

While there is no one rule to obey and no one form your prose should take, it's good sense to take the advice of established experts and acknowledge a formula to abide by if you are to capture and retain your readers' attention.

Dr. Lanham once said in his bestselling Revising Prose that all writing is rewriting. As you move along your self-editing journey to find and fix examples of the above literary "sins," remember that rewriting is part of the process every writer must oversee.

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