The paramedic method of editing

In June, I attended the Society of Editors (Qld) meeting in temporary HQ at Thorn St, where we were students in an editing first aid course delivered by paramedic Karl Craig. The course, ‘the paramedic method’, is based on Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose¸ a book first published in 1979 and now in its fifth edition.

Karl edits PhD theses, a genre in which 20,000 words of information can be crammed into 80,000 words of text, so it was clear that this paramedic editing is a skill he is necessarily practised in. He was introduced to the method when he began editing, around 10 years ago, and he described it as the sort of work most editors do intuitively.

The method is designed, as the book title explicitly says, for revising. It is not designed to help a person extract, syllable by syllable, the gossamer ideas from their heads to become print on the page. Nor is it designed for fiction, which must spend time building worlds for the reader, who must be serenaded into the story.

This method is a ‘direct assault on the “Official Style” ’. It’s short. It’s sharp. It’s straight to the point. It translates official style into plain language.

It’s not new, of course, as Karl pointed out. People have been lamenting the padding out of official language for years. In 1946 George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, an essay that decried the ‘contagion’ of unclear prose permeating the political language of the day. He said that ‘Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ The BBC television show Yes, Prime Minister made hay with this idea, as illustrated by Karl’s example where Sir Humphrey’s phrase, ‘the precise correlation between the information you communicated and the facts insofar as they can be determined and demonstrated is such as to cause epistemological problems of sufficient magnitude to lay upon the logical and semantic resources of the English language a heavier burden than they can reasonably be expected to bear’ turns out to mean ‘You told a lie’.

After this and other fine examples of language labouring, we got down to the nitty gritty by talking about the characteristics of ‘Official Style’:

  • It hides the actor and the action in the passive.
  • It displaces action from simple verbs into complex constructions.
  • It uses Latin words when Anglo words would do.
  • It adores the slow wind-up – the long, introductory phrase.
  • It loves to add prepositional phrases.
  • The words are inflated and embellished; it is euphemistic.
  • It takes up twice the space of an equivalent plain language explanation.

When occurring together, these characteristics of official style result in a curdled mess of meaning, quite suffocating under its own weight.

But how to administer first aid? Apply the paramedic method:

  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
  2. Box the ‘is’ verb forms
  3. Ask, ‘Where’s the action?’ (who is kicking whom?)
  4. Change the ‘action’ into a simple active verb
  5. Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups – make a fast start
  6. Mark off the rhythm units in each sentence with /.
  7. Mark off the sentence lengths with \.
  8. Read the piece aloud with emphasis and feeling.

When you’ve tried this method you’ll be able to derive a scientific index of just how bad it was: the lard factor. To determine the lard factor of a given sentence, apply the paramedic method to excise some words. Divide the number of discarded words by the original number and times by 100. This tells you how much of the original sentence was unnecessary to communicate its message. Karl told us that a lard factor of 50% is typical in most official writing.

He said that over years of converting ‘Official Style’ to readable material, he has found that plain English has its own characteristics:

  • active voice
  • reduced prepositional phrases
  • things do things to things
  • verbs instead of nominalisations
  • no long noun strings
  • pronouns that relate to their antecedents
  • parallel structures
  • important words at the beginning of sentences
  • subordinate ideas in subordinate clauses.

And with that we wrapped up our oxygen masks and put away the mannequins, having graduated from paramedic editing with a neat little checklist to back up our intuition in times of maximum complexity of emotional disturbance caused by the confluence of ever-approaching deadlines with dwindling time resources … er, stress.

Acknowledgement: this article was first published in the June edition of Offpress, the Society of Editors (Qld) monthly newsletter.

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Newsletter? Blog? How to reach your audience

I’ve been asked recently about whether you should use a newsletter or a blog to keep in touch with your audience. The first thing to recognise is that these channels can be used together to support each other, and that it shouldn’t be a question of either/or.

The other thing to be clear about is what kind of industry you’re in, and what your readership is for each of these communication tools. An organisation with a more  commercial focus may have an email list of thousands of people, most of whom don’t have a personal relationship with anyone in the organisation. A community organisation may have just tens or hundreds of people on their list, most of whom have had personal interaction with someone from the organisation.

Newsletters

A newsletter is a targeted bulletin, quite literally, a letter of news. What has happened in your organisation since the last newsletter? Like the evening news, a newsletter is a number of small stories so that your audience can quickly get an overview of an update about you. None of these stories will require much background and the style of writing will be journalistic, using the inverted triangle of media releases to quickly orient the reader to the who/what/when/where/why/how of a story.  As a newsletter is an update about existing work, or the first time that you’re mentioning a story, the time element is important – make sure you express the ‘when’ in your newsletter stories.

Blog posts

A blog post, on the other hand, is a place for a more in-depth discussion about a single topic. Think of the blogs you read: you probably come away from reading a blog post and tell your friends/colleagues/partner: today I read this blog post about the language of the Olympics, or about the Sahel food crisis. Each blog post is an exploration of a single idea, more in depth than you give in a newsletter. It will have more background, and may include personal anecdote or reflection – that will depend on the topic and the overall purpose of your blog, of course. The audience for blogs is more ephemeral than your newsletter audience because although the core people who are connected to your organisation will probably also read your blog, there is a group of transient onlookers who may sweep by and stay for a while, perhaps signing up for your newsletter, perhaps sharing your site or a particular blog post with friends or colleagues of theirs, perhaps commenting, perhaps passing on.

Newblog?

How to get these two communication methods to work together?

Each channel needs to link to the other.

In your newsletter:

  • Provide many links to your website. The stories should be able to stand on their own, but make the reader want to find out more. Tell them where you’re sending them: to a page about a project? a profile of a person? a blog entry on a particular project? Make sure they can get more information about aspects of your work they find most interesting.
  • Post your newsletters on your website so that people who sign up to your newsletter know they can get back issues at a single spot.
  • Make sure people browsing your website can sign up to your newsletter if they want to. And when you meet people and exchange business cards, ask them if you can add them to your newsletter now that you have their email address. They should be able to get off your list easily if they want: web standards these days require that people can unsubscribe to a newsletter in a single click, so make sure your newsletter software complies with this.

In your blog posts:

  • The blog items should also have cross-references to your newsletters (which will be linkable on your website, remember?). Work in a way of saying, ‘Following up from our news last month ….’ and link to the relevant spot in the newsletter (not to the whole newsletter, so you’ll need anchors).
  • Remember to talk about some other aspects of your work in each blog post – you don’t want to irritate people with the cross-promotion, but if someone is reading about your views on word choice, perhaps they’ll be interested to know you also wrote about cohesion?
  • Provide options for readers to subscribe to your blog posts so that they are delivered direct to readers’ inboxes. Give them options to share your posts on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest … if you use these social media you’ll know how much material you read that you found through someone you’re connected to, not direct from the organisation.

Some organisations are just not newsy, and some don’t have people going to their website to read 500–1000 words of a blog post. But if you work for an organisation that does have a news cycle, and that also has interesting commentary about aspects of its work, do the newsletter and the blog.

A most interesting proposal

Fiction editing is great for exploring subtle shades of meaning, of controlling how ideas are placed in a reader’s mind, and perhaps opening up whole new worlds. Although there is a definite structure, deviations from the main trip are delightful, if skilfully executed. You want the person to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, to smell the flowers along the way. Corporate, academic or science editing, on the other hand, is about communicating a message efficiently, about making complex ideas accessible (or, some might say, with tongue firmly in cheek, as inaccessible as possible), and letting the reader take the information and do something with it. No flower smelling here, thank you, I’m trying to save the flowers from extinction. Let’s go.

This makes corporate editing a lot of fun in terms of finding out stuff, stuff that I can well envisage one day turning into fiction. For example, some years ago I was writing a brief section of a report that was a demographic study of Australia. As part of the research for that I had to trawl through excel tables from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (which I secretly enjoyed very much), and I noticed that the number of women who said they were married differed from the number of men who said they were married. The statistic I was looking at said that more women than men thought they were married. Who were these women married to? Why were some of the men not declaring their marital status?

I’ve long lost the actual example, so I thought I’d look it up again to see if it was really true, or if I’d made it up. It’s true. And by looking at the historical data from here, I saw a pattern. From 1976 through to 1993 (for the years 1976, then every year from 1981 to 1993) fewer men than women said they were married. Then, between 1993 and 1994, something strange happens. In 1994, and for every year up to 2001, when these historical statistics finish, fewer women than men declare that they are married. (The categories people can choose are ‘married’, ‘never married’, ‘widowed’, ‘divorced’.)

The actual percentage of people who are apparently married to nobody fluctuates from almost -0.4% to +0.4%.

On the left hand side of the graph, the negatives show the number of men apparently not married, although there are women who think they are married to these men, as a percentage of the total number of married men.

On the right hand side of the graph, the positives show the number of women apparently not married, although there are men who think they are married to these women, as a percentage of the total number of married women.

I’m sure Bernard Salt, or in fact any statistician worth their salt (sorry, Bernard) would have a field day with my amateurish number necromancy. But you have to admit, this is fun. It makes me want to find out who these singly married people are and what happened around 1993/94 that made this statistic suddenly switch. It’s probably something quite boring, such as people whose divorces are in train, but not yet final, disagreeing as to whether they are married or divorced at the time of the census. But I would expect if it were that simple then the numbers would just cancel out, or at least the graph would swing between the positive and negative from year to year. Perhaps there was a change in the numbers of women filling in their own census forms, and therefore answering questions differently from how men might have answered them. I don’t know.

But I do know that the science of looking at large numbers reveals truths that we otherwise don’t have access to. In the hands of a skilled communicator, they really come alive. It was seeing Hans Rosling’s TED talk this week that reminded me about the ABS marriage statistics. What this man does with data and cardboard boxes is amazing.