Editing for parallelism: one writing lesson from the shortest literary form

creative writing expository writing

Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research (33)When I teach my students to become their own editors, I often tell them to be on the lookout for opportunities to use parallelism. Parallelism is the repetition of the same grammatical structure in successive parts of a sentence. (Grammatical structure is just a fancy way of saying some combination of nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech.)

Parallelism packs punch; it makes your writing clearer, easier to understand, and more memorable. By the way, that list of three comparative adjectives? Parallelism in action!

Let’s have another example. When I was writing a statement expressing my philosophy of education, this was my first draft:

To provide an education is not just to teach students basic competencies, but also nurturing their strengths.

My first edit:

To provide an education is not just to teach students basic competencies, but also to nurture their strengths.

To add parallelism, I changed “nurturing” to an infinitive verb so that it matches “to provide” and “to teach.” Going further, I added an adjective in front of “strengths” to match the structure of “basic competencies”:

To provide an education is not just to teach students basic competencies, but also to nurture their unique strengths.

Your writing doesn’t necessarily have to be parallel to be grammatically correct, but it’s a powerful rhetorical tool.

I always advise reading aloud your writing at the editing stage. It’s painful, but it can help you spot errors and opportunities to use devices like parallelism. More specifically, you can really impress your reader with parallelism in openings, closings, and statements of purpose, argument, or discovery. These are high-stakes moments, the perfect places for you to shine. In fact, a well-wrought sentence can even be a literary form of its own…


One of the shortest literary forms, the proverb—also known as the maxim, aphorism, epigram—often relies heavily on parallelism. (Note: scholars debate the subtle differences between these various words. I chose “proverb” as my umbrella term because it starts with the same letter as parallelism and I have a weakness for alliteration.) A proverb can be a moral or philosophical saying, a piece of advice, an accepted truth, a daring provocation, or some combination thereof.

In these uncertain months of 2020 I love the grace and balance of proverbs.

Quarantined, I’ve been reading whatever is lying around the house. In William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I found a collection of surprising and subversive proverbs, including:

Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.

These two linked sentences draw power from two rhetorical devices. One is parallelism; “Excess of noun verb” is repeated. The structure is simple, but Blake inverts the conventions we’d expect (“Sorrow weeps. Joy laughs.”) He crosses the concepts of happiness and sadness (sorrow-laughs-joy-weeps à sad-happy-happy-sad à A-B-B-A). This inversion or crossing is a kind of parallelism known as chiasmus (which, incidentally, comes from the Greek word for crossing!). Blake’s use of chiasmus produces an unexpected proposition about the world, that too much of an emotion looks and feels like its opposite. He might also be musing about what joy and sorrow have in common, the way they both possess our bodies. But I digress!

Blake reminded me of another writer who uses parallelism, Oscar Wilde, known for his savage wit and iconoclastic wisdom. Here’s a saying of his:

A community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.

Wilde’s comparison of “punishment” and “crime,” and his assertion that punishment is itself a kind of crime against a community, is strengthened by parallelism. Spot it?

Following my curiosity, I looked for older proverbs, and what better place than the Old Testament? My favorites were not in the aptly named Book of Proverbs but in Ecclesiastes. Here are two proverbs befitting these times of disease and uncertainty. Bad news first:

For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of man snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them. (9:12)

In this proverb about the unpredictability of death, parallelism is part of a pair of similes. That is, the “sons of man” are compared to animals who cannot know or control their fate.

Here’s something a little more comforting:

[A] man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. (8:15)

From this series of parallel verbs, “to eat, to drink, and to be merry,” we get the saying so often emblazoned on restaurant walls: “eat, drink, and be merry.” It’s memorable and pithy, and I hope we can abide by it if we can.

P.S. If you’re looking for more practice, see if you can spot all the instances of parallelism in this blog post or in an article from your favorite publication.

Writing is one of the primary skills required of high school and college students, yet rarely is it taught well. That’s why our writing tutors are published authors, MFA graduates, and Ph.D candidates in the humanities who have devoted years to learning how to teach their craft.

Our goal is to help our students become confident and independent academic writers. We teach students how to perform systematic research, create outlines, revise effectively, and appropriately cite sources. Moreover, we work hard to teach students why these things are important, and how to enjoy doing them.  We work with students in the context of formal courses, but we are also happy to create bespoke writing tutorials for students who need outside assistance or would like to practice during vacations from school. We also support students preparing to sit for the Writing section of the SAT, GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, or any other standardized exam.

In addition to helping students learn how to structure and communicate their thoughts in writing, our expository writing tutors will help you craft exciting, successful admissions essays, and beat standardized exams that test verbal skills. We have helped countless students shape their application narratives and transform their stories into compelling pieces of writing.

Contact us!

Looking for some other helpful writing tips? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!:

Two common grammatical mistakes to avoid in polished writing

Writing: Knowing Your Audience

Crafting a Strong Thesis Statement




academics MCAT study skills SAT medical school admissions expository writing English college admissions GRE GMAT LSAT MD/PhD admissions chemistry math physics ACT biology writing language learning strategy law school admissions graduate admissions MBA admissions creative writing homework help MD test anxiety AP exams interview prep summer activities history philosophy career advice academic advice premed ESL economics grammar personal statements study schedules law statistics & probability PSAT admissions coaching computer science organic chemistry psychology SSAT covid-19 CARS legal studies logic games USMLE calculus parents reading comprehension 1L Latin Spanish dental admissions DAT engineering excel political science French Linguistics Tutoring Approaches research DO MBA coursework Social Advocacy case coaching chinese classics genetics kinematics skills verbal reasoning ISEE academic integrity algebra business business skills careers geometry medical school mental health social sciences trigonometry 2L 3L Anki FlexMed Fourier Series Greek IB exams Italian MD/PhD programs STEM Sentence Correction Zoom amino acids analysis essay architecture art history artificial intelligence astrophysics athletics biochemistry capital markets cell biology central limit theorem chemical engineering chromatography climate change curriculum data science dental school diversity statement finance first generation student functions gap year harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science integrated reasoning international students investing investment banking mba meiosis mitosis music music theory neurology phrase structure rules plagiarism presentations pseudocode secondary applications sociology software software engineering teaching tech industry transfer typology virtual interviews writing circles