Revising Prose, Carlin, Euphemism and the Official Style

Richard Lanham’s book Revising Prose -now in its fourth edition- has the worst cover of any book I’ve read this year. Something about living in academia goes hand-in-hands with horrible book covers. It’s surprisingly funny and and easy read, although since I was underlining and marking things up quite a bit it took me longer to get through than it might have otherwise.

Lanham is a crusader against what he dubs the Official Style, the voiceless, impersonal language of bureaucracy, defined by ambiguous strings of prepositional phrases linked together by weak verbs like “is”.  He samples writing from government agencies and shows how lifeless prose with the action obscured can be revised into something both more clear and succinct. His railing against euphemism (“an officer-involved shooting occurred, resulting in the demise of the skunk” vs “he shot the skunk”) reminds me of George Carlin’s 1990 special, where he rages against a similar kind of language (“when I was a boy and got sick I went to a hospital to see a doctor; now they want me to go to a Health Maintenance Organization to consult a health care delivery professional” and “the poor used to live in slums; now the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities”). Lanham offers a step-by-step guide that assesses one’s prose for the superfluous and tells you what to cut and how.

I’ve found his advice to be much more pertinent to non-fiction, but maybe this is just because my fiction is generally written in more of a spoken voice, which makes it harder for the Official Style to creep in. I don’t think I make many of the mistakes he points out (not to say I don’t royally fuck up my writing; I just do it differently) but I still got some good stuff out of the book. If I may offer my own modified set of rules to amend Lanham’s seven:

  1. Is the detail necessary? Does it illuminate or obfuscate?  Is the illumination necessary?
  2. Is it imperative that you use the passive voice?
  3. Is the tone of your writing in keeping with its purpose?

Rules are made to be broken, but you have to know them completely and understand the full extent of their interactions before you can break them well.


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