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:
- Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
- Box the ‘is’ verb forms
- Ask, ‘Where’s the action?’ (who is kicking whom?)
- Change the ‘action’ into a simple active verb
- Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups – make a fast start
- Mark off the rhythm units in each sentence with /.
- Mark off the sentence lengths with \.
- 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.