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Make Important Actions Verbs.
Starting with lesson 2, the book “Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace” explains the detailed principles and how to apply them into practice.
Lesson 2 is about “actions”, how to make actions stand out in the sentence is key to clear and lively writing. Specific actions of the main characters are essential to telling good stories.
- Abstract nouns use lots of normalizations and cause indirect, unclear, and dense writing.
- Clear stories use main characters as subjects and use verbs to express specific actions.
- Clarity principles: make main characters subjects, make important actions verbs.
- Revision is a three-step process: diagnose, analyze, and rewrite.
- Benefits of relying on verbs to express key actions: sentences are more concrete, more concise. The logic is clearer and the story is more coherent.
- Know which normalization to keep and which to revise into verbs.
Verbs and Actions
1a. The cause of our schools’ failure at teaching basic skills is not understanding the influence of cultural background on learning.
1b. Our schools have failed to teach basic skills because they do not understand how cultural background influences the way a child learns.
(1a) is dense and complex, while (1b) is clearer and more direct. Because the main characters (schools, child) in (1b) are subjects of verbs (fail, teach, understand, influence) that describe the specific actions.
Another example specifically points out even writing in college or on the job can have problems:
3a. The Federalists’ in regard to the destabilization of government by popular democracy WAS BASED on their belief in the tendency of factions to FURTHER their self-interest at the expense of the common good.
3b. The argued that destabilized government, because believed that tended to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.
Sentence (3a) feels dense because its characters are not subjects. The simple subject (underlined) is argument, but the characters are Federalists, popular democracy, government, and factions. Second, the actions (bold) are abstract nouns instead of verbs (capitalized).
On the contrary, sentence (3b) is clearer as the characters (italicized) are subjects (underlined), and the actions (bold) are verbs.
A noun derived from a verb or an adjective has a technical name: nominalization. E.g., discover -> discovery, careless -> carelessness, she flies -> her flying.
Abstract, indirect, and difficult writing uses lots of nominalizations, especially as the subjects of verbs.
When you match characters to subjects and actions to verbs in your sentences, readers will think the prose is clear, direct, and readable.
Diagnosis and Revision
To use the principles of verbs as actions and subjects as characters, the book gives recipes for how to diagnose, analyze, and rewrite the sentences.
To diagnose, ignore short (four- or five-word) introductory phrases and underline the first seven or eight words in each sentence, then underline abstract nouns (bold) as simple subjects, underline seven or eight words before getting to a verb (capitalized).
by corporations (10 words) MEANS the loss of jobs for many American workers.
To analyze, decide the main characters (the flesh-and-blood ones), and look for actions that those characters perform, especially actions in those abstract nouns derived from verbs.
The outsourcing of high-tech work to Asia by corporations (10 words) means the loss of jobs for many American workers.
To rewrite, convert nominalized actions to verbs, make the characters the subjects of those verbs, and rewrite with subordinating conjunctions like because, if, when, although, why, how, whether or that
Many middle-class American workers are losing their jobs, because corporations are outsourcing their high-tech work to Asia.
The second lesson elaborates two core principles of clear and direct writing: make main characters subjects and make important actions verbs. It gives examples of dense and indirect sentences. The reason why those sentences feel unclear and hard to understand to readers is the overuse of verb nominalizations. To write clear sentences, we need to practice the three-step process: diagnose, analyze, and rewrite.