Slicing and Dicing My Own Writing For Your Reading Pleasure

As promised in the title of the post, in this week’s edition of the blog, I slice and dice my own writing like a tomato for your vicarious reading pleasure. I wanted to show readers how even a mediocre piece of writing could become a lot better after being edited and revised a little bit.

The writing sample that I chose to use is a snippet from a dissertation chapter draft that I wrote a few years ago. I wrote about a British medical doctor named Thomas Gann who developed a penchant for Mayan archaeology in the 1920s. In the end, I cut the section about Gann from the final chapter draft. I stuck his story in a file somewhere and forgot about him. When I needed a writing sample for this post, I pulled out the draft and assessed it with new eyes. I’ve learned a lot more about writing since I wrote this piece. It ain’t the worst thing I’ve ever written, but it has a stuffy academic feel to it. When I read it aloud, it sounded mechanical in many places.

Click here to read the original, unedited sample.

Here’s what I notice:

Paragraph structure: The first paragraph, in particular, isn’t ordered very well. There’s a sentence about Gann excavating in his spare time, but then I’ve put a sentence about him publishing his findings. Next, I’m back to talking about how he excavated Mayan sites and that he interpreted the sites incorrectly. The paragraph would make better sense if I talked about Gann’s excavations, interpretations, and publications, in that order.

There are also a few places I could make some new paragraphs and let the reader breathe for a moment before moving on to the next set of ideas.

Wordiness. I wrote some very wordy sentences. I used to write with a pretty standard sentence structure that went like this: “Although XYZ, ABC did QRST, which GHIJK that PQR.” I’ve modeled the very first sentence of this piece on that structure:

Nevertheless, restricting professional archaeology to only qualified, university-trained professionals created contradictions that proved difficult to resolve and the definition of “professional archaeologist” remained open to interpretation throughout the 1930s.

I don’t know from where I learned this particular sentence structure, but my life’s mission is now to un-learn it. Following this structure creates a sentence with at least three clauses that could potentially hold up to four different ideas.

Not only is the sentence wordy, but also it is vague. What contradictions? I would counsel the then-writer me to write with shorter, simpler sentences and to only put one idea in each sentence. I’d also advise me to include more specific details. Other sentences are also wordy and vague. For instance, this one now makes me cringe:

“…a scientific epistemology that imbued their findings with an authoritative character.”

Yikes! What am I talking about? We don’t really know. I’ve used that awful sentence structure and too many words again.

Unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Lots of ‘em. Previously. Repeatedly. Additionally. Clearly. Nearly. Unwittingly. Increasingly. Ugh. I ran this section through the Writer’s Diet test, which scored it as a “heart attack” in terms of adverbs and adjectives. The meaning of individual sentences and the piece as a whole would be clearer if I removed many of them.

Nominalizations. As Helen Sword argues, academics (guilty as charged!) love nominalizations, which she calls zombie nouns. Using too many zombie nouns sucks the life out of sentences and turns even good writing into senseless academic-speak. I haven’t used any nominalizations that end in -ity, -ize, and -ism, but I love zombie nouns that end in -tion. Professionalization. Speculation. Function. Observation. Assumption. Excavation. These are all nouns made out of verbs: to professionalize, to speculate, to function, to observe, to assume, and to excavate. The sentences would be much clearer if I used the verb form of these nouns.

Non Parallel Structures: As a novice dissertation writer, I didn’t understand how parallel structures create patterns in writing, but I do now. Take a gander at this gem:

Gann kept no records of his digging, nor did he supervise the laborers he employed to sift through the dirt, which resulted in often haphazard excavations, erroneous assumptions, and the theft of archaeological remains.

Not only is the sentence way too wordy (again), but the list structures are not parallel. I’ve got haphazard excavations (adjective+ nominalization), erroneous assumptions (adjective + nominalization), and the theft of archaeological artifacts (noun + another adjective +noun). The structure of the third item doesn't match the first two. If I’m going to keep this sentence, I need to fix the last phrase to match the others in the list. I also need to rid this sentence of the nominalizations: excavations and assumptions. This is going to take some restructuring of the whole sentence and I might remove it entirely.

Telling rather than showing: The above sentence not only suffers from wordiness, nominalizations, and non-parallel structures, but also it tells us, rather than shows us, that Gann was an amateur archaeologist. The first part, which describes his lack of training and methods, should be enough to show us that he didn’t know very much about archaeology. Afraid that the reader will miss the point, I’ve tacked on the non-parallel list to tell the reader how I think he or she should interpret the fact that Gann kept no records of his excavations. Readers are smart enough to figure out that an archaeologist who keeps no records probably isn’t a very good one.

Sentences without clear actors: This piece should be about Thomas Gann doing some stuff. I’ve slipped in several sentences in which there is no clear actor, like this one:

The publication of this book not only cemented Gann’s reputation as an archaeologist, but also placed amateur speculations about Mesoamerican archaeology squarely in the hands of both the British and U.S. reading public.

Besides being wordy and having too many nominalizations, the sentence lacks a clear actor. The actor might be Gann’s book, but as an inanimate object, it cannot really be said to be an actor. This sentence would be clearer if I included some actual people doing things. It also has that passive-voice thing—the readers had this book placed in their hands, but it is unclear who placed it there.

Or, going back to my first sentence:

Nevertheless, restricting professional archaeology to only qualified, university-trained professionals created contradictions that proved difficult to resolve and the definition of “professional archaeologist” remained open to interpretation throughout the 1930s.

Who is doing the restricting here? It’s a sentence without a clear actor, so we never know for sure who is doing what to whom.

Not concrete enough: I've explained most of my ideas with abstract nouns and verbs. I've added some concrete nouns (dirt, thieves), but the abstract nouns (nominalizations!) overpower them. Adding as many concrete nouns as possible would bring this piece back to earth.

So, my revision to-do list looks like this:

  1. Reorder paragraph sentences into a logical order
  2. Trim academic word “fat” and omit needless words.
  3. Remove unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.
  4. Remove as many nominalizations as possible.
  5. Fix non-parallel structures (if any remain after revision)
  6. Put human actors into the sentences.
  7. Insert concrete nouns and verbs where possible.

I spent some hours revising these paragraphs according to my revision to-do list. I think the end result is a much more concise and clear piece of writing.

Click here to download the revision and see what I've done.

The revised version isn’t perfect. I left some awkward adverbs (scholarly) and a number of adjectives (professional, medical, archaeological). A few nominalizations remain (e.g. civilization). I’ve used a form of to be twice. I'd like to think some more about how to insert more concrete nouns. However, the entire piece of writing reads better than the original and makes more sense. I use fewer words to say more things. The sentences are shorter and allow the reader to absorb one idea and move on to the next. The Writer’s Diet test judges this piece of reading to be “fit and trim.” Now it only suggests that I use fewer adjectives. (Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m working on it.)

Were I to keep working on this piece (and I might!), I would revise a few more times. Revising your own writing isn’t easy; it’s hard to look at things with an objective and critical eye. Every revision brings me a little closer to the goal of crafting some well-written work that readers understand and enjoy. Creating a piece of clear writing that a reader can follow without difficulty takes time and effort. The result, however, is well worth it.