How to improve crabbed prose, and figure out what you yourself really think!!!!

This method combines the insights of Richard Lanham, Revising Prose, and Joseph Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.


The task of analysis, and of clear writing, is to figure out

Who is doing what to whom?

in any given sentence. Sometimes doing so will involve

  • revising the passive voice:


“The essay was considered to be a good one.”

First, add “by ____” – that is, figure out the person or group who is doing the considering.

Then change the sentence to the active voice:

“My professor considers the essay to be a good one.”


  • revising nominalizations:


Nominalizations are nouns that contain verbal ideas:

investigation = to investigate

“The police conducted an investigation” =

“The police investigated.”


Notice that the second, revised, better sentence seems incomplete somehow. We use nominalizations because they help us feel as if we are really saying more than we actually are:

“Much information was made available.”

-- by whom? – to whom? Who is doing what to whom?

This sentence really says no more than:

“You informed me.”

Put in its most clear form, we are led to the crucial question, "about what?" Writing clearly helps you see what you don't yet know, what you need to know. Who are “you” and “me”? Formulating ideas in as direct and simple a way as possible constitutes great style and simultaneously improves the clarity and scope of your thinking.

If a sentence is a series of nominalizations linked together by prepositions, then try to find, for each nominalization (see handout attached) the verbal idea. Ask: who is performing what action? why? to whom? Rewrite the string of prepositional phrases as separate sentences or as separate clauses linked together by “subordination” (see handout attached).


Noun:          ----------------------------------------> Verb

an evaluation of --------------------------------------> to evaluate

the servicing of --------------------------------------> to service

the achievement of -----------------------------------> to achieve

the institution of --------------------------------------> to institute

a suspension of --------------------------------------> to suspend

the control of -----------------------------------------> to control

the desire for -----------------------------------------> to desire

the difference between --------------------------------> to differ



Subordinate Clauses create relationships between words in your sentences and hence also between ideas in your minds. Rewriting simple sentences as complex sentences with multiple causes is the same task as thinking, "O.k., how are A & B related? Does A cause B, or is it just something that happens before B?" Subordinating connectors relate two ideas in some way:




when, whenever, after, before, until, as as long as, once, while


where, wherever


since, because


although, though, even though, while


whereas, while, than, rather than


unless, if, provided that, whether, as long as


as, as though, as if, how


as . . . as, just as




in order that, so that, in order to, to


[relative pronouns:] who, whom, which, that




I went to the store. I bought lemons.


When I went to the store, I bought lemons. (two simple ideas, related by time)

I went to the store in order to buy lemons. (related by purpose)


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