Bold Sentence Openings may Help to Get Ideas Out

I like forceful statements.  Basically, that’s often when I’ve come up with my idea, is when I get a nice powerful sentence….  I think once you’ve made a forceful statement, it makes you live up to it….  You have to defend what you’ve written.  (writer #10)

My PhD is looking at the role of genre in discovery writing.  In existing research, discovery writing has been characterised by the so-called Forster quote: ‘How do I know what I think before I see what I say?’  The quote envisages a writer first speaking, and then realising the significance of what they’ve said.  It’s a common experience among writers.  We first get words out or flowing, and then realise whether the writing is good or not, or whether an idea works.  There might be a pleasant surprise, or ‘discovery’, that you’ve written something that you hadn’t realised the significance of as you wrote it. Sometimes it might be the opposite, and you realise that your idea does not pan out!  In either case, the writing might have helped to create or realise an idea.  Ideas might even seem co-existent with the writing, rather than being an idea ‘translated’ into writing.  The medium is the message, as it were, and the thinking seems to have come out of the writing, rather than the more usual sense that that writing follows an idea.  Discovery writing is not just about getting an idea out of your head. It’s about bringing something into being through writing.

My interest in the role of genre vis a vis discovery writing, is to look at how ‘what’ people write influences ‘how’ they write.  By interviewing academic writers, fiction writers, and bloggers, I’m looking at what kinds of ‘things’ or ‘ideas’ writers are finding through writing.  Academic writers are tending to talk about finding their argument.  Fiction writers tend to talk about characters, stories, and ‘ideas’.

This particular blog post looks at a pattern I’m beginning to notice in my research, which is that some writers make bold sentence openings without necessarily knowing how they’ll finish the sentence.  Making a forceful start can help writers to follow up with a strong point, even if they’re not quite sure what that strong point is.  Combative sentences help them to get their thoughts and writing moving.

Two PhD Students finding that Strident Sentence Openings Help Them to Find or Create their Argument

One PhD student (#3) in my study had reached a particularly difficult point with an article she was writing.  She had written a few of her major PhD findings, had built towards some concluding points, but was struggling to make a decisive statement that would finish the paragraph.  She was vaguely aware that a definitive statement was possible.  It was perhaps on the tip of her tongue.  Beginning a sentence with ‘Even more significantly’ helped her make that little leap into creating the statement, and bringing the idea into being:

….  I remember having specific moments when I was writing … when finding the right phrase or word really helped to crystallize the argument for myself…. I remember writing the last paragraph from the literature review, that it originally finished one sentence early….  And after I’d finished the draft, I suddenly thought ‘no, I need to put another sentence in to make that clear, and that somehow clarified in my own mind what I was writing.  Because what I had written… was that ‘one lesson that emerges is that grammar is a source of difficulty for a significant number of English teachers’, and that ‘teachers need support to develop their linguistic and pedagogical subject knowledge’.  And I was like ‘that’s fine, but that doesn’t say anything about emotion’.  When I read it again… I suddenly thought… I had just this moment where I’m pretty sure that I’d written half the sentence before I’d worked out what I was trying to say, which is why I remember this being a discovery sort of writing moment….  And I think I wrote ‘even more significantly’ without knowing what I was going to put next, and then I put ‘research into affects’…. (writer #3)

One thing that is striking about the above statement is that she creates a lead in – of ‘even more significantly’ – without being consciously aware of exactly how her sentence is going to follow that up, or be able to justify such a claim.  Perhaps she’s set herself a challenge to resolve that ambitious opening with a definitive statement, which she’s vaguely aware is possible, but is not yet available to her.  To follow up an opening like ‘even more significantly’ is by definition to make a ‘significant’ contribution, which would also pretty much by definition be weighty and important enough to be felt as a ‘discovery’.

Another PhD student (#10), writing a Mary Shelley chapter of his thesis, felt that making ‘forceful statements’ was where he’d ‘often… come up with my idea’:

I like forceful statements.  Basically, that’s often when I’ve come up with my idea, is when I get a nice powerful sentence….  I think once you’ve made a forceful statement, it makes you live up to it….  You have to defend what you’ve written.  (writer #10)

Both of these students were from a literary background, where it is perhaps usual to attempt a bold statement or a rhetorical flourish.  Both were working on difficult pieces of writing, in that they were now at a stage when they had to start producing or expressing original work. Both were finding ‘ideas’ by pushing ahead with a striking sentence opening.

A Blogger and a Literature student  making Bold sentences to get ‘writing out’

Two other writers in my study have said similar things about wanting to begin sentences in a strident manner.  A blog writer (#1) began one of his posts with:

Thalassophobia is the fear of the sea.

I’m not afraid of the sea. I grew up by it. I could see it from my bedroom window as a child. I walked along a strip of coast every day for years on my way to the train station, on my way both to school and to work. I’m not a swimmer nor a fisherman so I’ve never spent much time in it or on it, but I’ve spent an awfully large amount of time pondering it.  (writer #1)

His blog post was a review of a British Sea Power EP, which on the surface seemed quite unrelated to the fact that he spent his childhood by the sea.  He liked to make strange or unrelated openings, feeling that he would be making a ‘mental connection’, ‘jumping the first hurdle’, and ‘that’s when writing can come out’:

I guess it’s kind of the opposite of what you get taught when you’re an undergraduate and you’re writing essays, and someone says to you ‘your introduction should say “in this essay, I will… I will prove this, I will discuss this, I will whatever…”’ and I think… [my first line is] maybe … kicking against that a bit… a….  ‘my opening line will not say what I am going to do in this post at all, it seems to be something that is completely unrelated to what I’m going to write about.’  But … I think… sometimes I do try and find something that is unrelated to what I’m going to write about, and try and connect it, because in making that mental connection, you then… you’ve jumped that first hurdle and you’re running afterwards, and that’s when writing can come out.  (writer #1)

As with the PhD writers, there’s a sense of jumping into a sentence with both feet.  He finds that this start is a helpful process that gets him starting writing, which can then propel both his thinking and the writing into motion: ‘you’ve jumped that first hurdle and you’re running afterwards, and that’s when the writing can come out’.

A second year Literature student (#9) in my study also found that starting with a strident sentence helped her to get her writing ‘out’.  She was also kicking against the convention that you should first summarise your argument.

When writing her essay, she had been frustrated by her tutor suggesting to students that they should include a thesis statement in their introduction.  This discussion lead to her talking about how she likes to begin exam essays with a bold statement that has some impact, and which is ‘just trying to get that sort of sentence out’:

I mean, it’s something [sic – not] done at all in this essay, but… I think the first sentence is so important. ….  I know in the exam, I just wrote….  I opened it by saying ‘I think something about Eighteenth century thought can be almost totally characterized by a preoccupation with externalism’, or something.  So just trying to get that kind of that sort of sentence out where you read the first sentence and go ‘oh’.  You know, I think that’s a far more comprehensive way of writing than saying ‘Stuart, in his article….’.  (writer #9)

Interestingly, she is talking about a writing process – ‘to get that sentence out’ – as well as a reading process: ‘you read the first sentence and go ‘oh’…’  It is as if the experience of writing a sentence is related to the experience of reading – for the writer rereading, and the reader reading.  The impetus for her, as a writer, seems akin to making a launch out into writing from where more writing can follow on, rather than making a summary which would otherwise seem more self contained as a unit.  Simply, the sentence she wants to start with is perhaps also the sentence that she feels is key to her argument.  So it’s good just to get it out there in case she loses it.

Her desire to not create an initial statement is also about wanting to avoid formulaic statements of intent:

… it is another summing-up sentence, but it’s a sentence that kind of… encapsulates something, rather than going ‘in this essay I will argue that the Eighteenth century’… you know.  (writer #9)

These two writers were both talking about beginning writing. They both found it difficult to start, and found that avoiding the usual and formulaic summary helped them to jump straight in and get muddy, as it were, which helped the writing ‘come out’.  Both were kicking against an ‘in this essay I will…’ convention.

Implications for Discovery Writing and Genre

The two PhD students are both describing a discovery writing process.  They’re both saying that trying to write a forceful sentence helps them to get their thinking processes going.  For writer #3 it’s a statement of intent, an ‘even more significantly’, that helps her to get in touch with a key point that is emerging in her research.  She remembers this particular sentence and how she had started it and then came back to it. She remembers it as a moment of discovery.  The quality of her recollections and the fact that she could easily put them in context with her overall writing processes bodes well for my study – some quality ‘data’. For writer #10, it’s more a general awareness that he likes ‘forceful statements’ and that they help him ‘come up with an idea’.  His points seem to be of the same character as writer #3.

In terms of genre?!  Both these writers had Literature degrees. One was doing a PhD on writing practices in education, and the other was doing a Literature PhD on Mary Wollstonecraft.  It could be that Literature students like making bold sentence openings and forceful sentences. Or it might be that Literature students like to dive in with strong statements that they can then attempt to back up.  But I can’t really justify arguing this.  And no doubt we could just as easily say the same about humanities students or science students.  I don’t think I can easily make statements about genre here.  It’s fair to say, however, that PhDs need to make original contributions, so PhD writers tend to strive for original or defining statements.  And PhD students kind of need ‘arguments’ too, or a different angle.  It’s important for them to keep their ‘ideas’ tied in with their overall thesis.  So their writing has to be cohesive in the sense that they’re trying to make connections.  Their ‘big ideas’ are likely to be things that synthesise their findings or their research, or otherwise make connections in new directions.  They perhaps experience discoveries, like writer #3 does, because they have struggled and then finally achieved a connection.

For the blog writer and the degree student, it’s about wanting to jump in and make a start on writing rather than make a bland summary of intent.  For the blog writer, his writing about something seemingly unrelated, or not central to his piece, is a way to start making ‘mental connection[s]’.  His writing seems less about getting ‘ideas’ out, and more about getting writing ‘out’, or getting his ‘thinking’ up and running.  The Literature degree writer is saying something similar, about getting a sentence ‘out’.  She avoids any preamble by getting straight to the heart of what she wants to say.  She’s talking less about a writing process, and more about the impact or affect of her writing upon a reader.  So there’s perhaps not enough there for me to make inferences about her writing processes.

In terms of genre?!  Blogs tend to be personal, and tend to capture a writer’s thoughts and feelings.  They’re often experiential in this sense, and tend to be written in a serial manner, much like a stream of consciousness.  Writers in my study also tended not to plan their blogs heavily in advance, and felt it was enjoyable to let their writing take tangents.  Blogs do not have to be written in such a way, obviously, but they tend to be associated with this ‘discovery’ kind of writing process.  If you want to ‘kick against’ something in how and what you write, a blog is place where you can experiment with that. It’s a low risk ground in this sense – it’s not assessed.  For the Literature student, she is partly talking about an exam writing technique of wanting to begin with a striking sentence.  But, as noted above, she is perhaps not talking enough about a writing process for me to make inferences about a discovery writing approach.

Methodological Concerns – Discussing Theory with the Writers in My Study

Before interviewing the writers in my study, I read the pieces of their writing which we later based the interview upon.  Reading their writing helped me to identify aspects of their writing that interested me. Writer #1, whose blog post began with Thallasophobia, was the first piece of writing that got me wondering what role such an enigmatic first sentence was having for the writer.  So I discussed this with him, asking him questions about how and why he writes a first line like that.  I then asked the same questions of some other writers in my study.  With writer #9, the Literature student who describes a process very similar to writer #1, I had discussed my thoughts about writer #1 with her.  She (#9) had been talking about resenting an obligation to write a formulaic introduction, so seeing the similarities between what she and writer #1 were saying, I was interested in whether her writing processes were similar to his.  I’m aware that by discussing his writing processes with her I may have suggested or pre-empted her response along those lines.   By discussing theory in this way with my writers, I appreciate that my methods are not as clinical as some studies.  I’m mentioning this for the sake of transparency, aware that my interviewing style might not meet some research standards.  Better to be open about these things!

To be Continuued………

I’ll hopefully upload some more of my PhD thoughts over the next few weeks. I think that these bold sentence openings might link with how writers use words too, so that might be a link I work on next.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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