The Quest for the Great, First Sentence


This sentence is the most difficult sentence to write. It has troubled writers since they started writing to entertain readers. Writers often sort through hundreds to thousands of words to find a great sentence, and no sentence is more important than the first. The quest can be humbling for even the best writers. They consider it so difficult that if they write one great sentence a day, it’s a good day, and they figure that about 1% of the sentences they write are great sentences. If that’s the case, what percentage of that percentage are great enough to be provocative first sentences? Some of the most famous admit that they spent so much time (months and even years) trying to find that one great sentence to start a new book that it’s no wonder why so many of them turn to drink?   

I wrote a great sentence once. After I wrote it, I couldn’t believe I wrote it. I even took some time out to stare at it and appreciate it. I was so proud. Wow, I thought, that is a great sentence, and I wrote it. It can take writers pages to say what we want to say, and some of the times it takes paragraphs. Every once in a great while, we do it in one clear and concise sentence. When that sentence falls out of our head, no matter how hard we worked to achieve it, it almost seems like an accident.

The problem, I realized soon after I spent a minute appreciating that moment for what is was, was that the great sentence didn’t happen until the conclusion. It felt wasted, because I knew that if I was lucky enough to have a reader click on my article, most of them aren’t going read all the way through to the conclusion. With that in mind, I tried something revolutionary for me. I put that glorious sentence in the intro, and I rewrote the entire article accordingly. It paid off in this one particular instance, for not only did this new, revised article become one of the best articles I’ve ever written, but it also attracted a number of readers.

If the average writer is anything like me, arriving at a conclusion is a journey. I don’t know how other writers operate, but nine times out of ten, I won’t know my conclusion until I get there. Some writers refer to this journey as the joy of discovery, and this journey often involves writing so much, so often, that a great sentence almost falls out of us every once in a great while. 

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What is a great sentence? Great sentences are, by my definition, not better than anyone else’s are. We do not write the words great sentence from an egotistical perspective. A great sentence is a relative term, defined by the writer, as the perfect way of summarizing and synthesizing everything we want to say. It is also the payoff for all the hard work we’ve done leading up to it. When we put in the work to read and understand another author’s point, we do it hoping that there will be a payoff, or an ultimate clarification often found in the conclusion. Writing, or at least my writing, is as much about discovery as it is for readers, and the payoff for all the hard work I put into writing the article is that one great sentence that clarifies everything I was trying to say, wraps it up, and puts what I consider a final, gleaming cherry atop the pie.   

There are also some cathartic feelings we attach to “nailing” that certain something that plagued us before we wrote that great sentence. When we write, we’re attempting to achieve some higher level of clarity on a topic, and when we’re able to clarify what we’re trying to write to the reader in one, great sentence, it helps us clarify it for ourselves. 

Great sentences do not arrive in the birthing process. Every writer has probably arrived at a great sentence in the first draft once or twice, but it happens so rarely that we don’t remember it. Great sentences usually arrive after the framework is complete. They often happen after the mild illness that drives us to write so often is somewhat satisfied that we have the foundation for a story, article, or novel. It usually happens after the self-imposed stress, anxiety, and obsessive behavior we have relaxes. We’re less robotic in this stage, more creative and more emotive, and that’s where the great sentences achieve life.

“What’s the perfect way of wrapping all this up?” we think while trying to wrap our article up with the perfect conclusion. When that “Aha!” moment finally arrives, and the writer writes a sentence that could be one of the best lines they’ve ever delivered, it can change the theme and scope of an article. It can also make us think that every hour we spent writing to that point was a waste, unless we realize that we found a better article than the original one we wrote.

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The internet is a blessing and curse for modern writers, as we can now reach an audience of hundreds of millions by clicking a mouse. The curse is that everyone else enjoys that same privilege. How do we separate ourselves from that overcrowded pack and write a quality article that attracts attention? A remedy, as opposed to the remedy, might be to take the conclusion we worked so hard to sum up our article and make it the lede.

It’s not hard to write an intro in a first draft, as it is often proves to be nothing more than a bridge between what we have in our mind and what we type out onto a screen or page. Yet, we might accidentally appreciate those words for helping us start that we assign them a precious quality. When we find a halfway decent start, we might want to show our appreciation to those words for helping us start by rewarding them with their righteous place at the top of the article. We might think it’s good enough to be good enough, and once the intro is complete, it’s completed. We’re grateful that we don’t have to obsess over it anymore. It did its job of moving the idea from mind to screen or paper, and it’s time to move on and worry about the rest. If it’s good enough for us, we think, it should be good enough to attract the reader. If the reader is attracted to it, we’ll reward them with a knock-your-socks off conclusion that might leave a great impression on the reader, a reputation in the reader’s mind, and a click on the subscription button.

In the editing process, however, our focus should turn to the reader, because we know that our readers don’t know how hard it was for us to write the article, and they honestly don’t care. They won’t care how precious those words were to us, and they don’t care about our process. The writer either writes great sentences or they don’t, and if they don’t, the reader heads on over to the dreaded (‘X’) that closes our web page.

Another reason it’s a little depressing when our best sentence doesn’t arrive until the conclusion is that if it’s that good it might transform the article, and if we want to write an article that supports that great sentence, we’ll have to spend another couple hours, days, or weeks redoing the entire thing. If we recognize it for what it is, however, we should recognize that at least we found it. At that point, we should drop any facade that we’re a great writer, release ourselves from the leash of the preciousness of our words, and rewrite the whole thing according to that new article we found nestled within that great sentence.

It might sound counterintuitive to make the conclusion the intro, as some sentences have an intro beat to them and others sound more like conclusions, but a great sentence is a great sentence. What is a conclusion, if not a sentence, or series of sentences that summarize the most important elements of a story? What’s the difference between a great intro, or lede, and a great conclusion? Some of the times, a conclusion assumes that we already know the information expressed in the article, but more often than not, that’s an easy fix. It almost goes without saying now that in this age of hundreds of thousands of writers writing millions of articles, it’s vital that we captivate them with a great, first sentence regardless when we find it.

If a writer finds a great sentence in the midst of writing, they will need to find proper transitions, of course, but if they are able to accomplish a seamless transition between the paragraphs, the writer might be able to maintain the reader’s attention for at least two paragraphs with the new lede transitioning to our former, dynamic intro.

Most writers know how essential a great first line is, and some of the times, we might find hints of it in paragraph three, and it might not hit us until the conclusion. The point is if we work hard enough at it, a great sentence might accidentally happen, and if it does we should feed and nurture it in the manner we do any of our other loved ones.

The problem arrives when we supplant that first lede with the original conclusion, and we work to a new conclusion. Does this second conclusion have a sentence greater than the first? Should we supplant the new lede with this second conclusion? Should we rinse and repeat, in other words, and keep repeating this process until we have a 1,744-word article of overlapping conclusions? I’ve yet to encounter such a problem, but if my next, edited conclusion is better than my first, I might go back and do it again, and again, as often as it works. This process doesn’t always work, of course. As I wrote, some conclusions assume too much to be quality intros, but I think that in the age of hyper AD-HD, internet readers, writers have to do whatever we can to attract readers and keep their attention, and this was but one way I found to do it when I was writing an article and I created one beautiful and intoxicating great sentence. 

https://leonardodavincigallery.com/what-is-leonardo-da-vinci-sfumato-technique/

Da Vinci’s Sfumato and Chekov’s Razor


Leonardo da Vinci introduced a mindset that every author should be employing in their writing, if they are not already. This mindset resulted from a technique da Vinci used in his paintings called sfumato, or “gone up in smoke”. I use it so often that I don’t think of it as a technique anymore, but I found it interesting to read the explorations of it by one most famous artists in history. The basic tenet of the sfumato technique da Vinci made famous, was to avoid using specific and concrete lines in his paintings. This might not sound like a novel technique to the accomplished artist of the day, but it was groundbreaking in its day. Da Vinci did not invent this technique, as some evidence suggests it dates back to the chiaroscuro effects used by ancient Greeks and Romans, but da Vinci took it to another level. As author Walter Isaacson wrote, Leonardo was so obsessed with using shadows and reflected light that he wrote fifteen thousand words on the topic, “And that is probably less than half of what he originally wrote,” Isaacson opined.

The sfumato technique also applies to writing. When an author begins writing a story, they characterize their main character with bold lines through unique, individualistic, and semi-autobiographical lines. The more an author explores that character, the more they chip away at strict characterization and allow the character to breathe for themselves in a manner that adds dimension. They characterize with shading and reflection, or refraction through supporting characters, until they have done little to characterize the main character except through their interactions with others and events. Their main character becomes more prominent through these literary devices, until the central character becomes the literary equivalent to an eye of the storm.

In writing, we call the sfumato technique “the show don’t tell” technique. The author uses supporting characters and setting to define their main character, and they use all of this to bring the events involved in their stories to life. The takeaway might be that the optimum characterizations are those characterizations that appear more organic to the reader. In other words, the author should be working his or her tail off to make the work appear so easy that the reader thinks anyone could do it.

Chekov’s Razor

The aspiring writer should also know the principles of Chekov’s Razor that they employ them so often in their writing that they don’t realize they’re using it. The idea of Chekov’s razor is that the first three paragraphs, or pages an author writes, are for the author, and the rest is for the reader. 

Anyone who knows anything about the writing process knows that the blinking cursor, or the blank page, can be daunting. To defeat the blinking cursor, the experienced writer starts writing. We can call this the discovery phase. In the discovery phase, the writing is gibberish that no one but the writer can understand. This is the “all play no work” phase for most writers, as it allows them to be creative. They love to write with an ending in mind, and they love the process of working to that ending. While working to the ending, the creative mind might change the ending, based on little points of discovery leading up to the original ending. Once that ending is changed, however, some of the little points leading up to it need to be changed. 

The greater takeaway for aspiring writers is to get the idea down before you forget it. Don’t worry about sequencing, chronology, grammar, spelling, or if this story is the base for the next great American novel. Just write it down and worry about all the editing later. Just writing a bunch of gibberish down, only the writer understands, opens them up to the subject matter. Once the author is in, the material might have the wherewithal to be in a near proximity to where a story lies, but the real story could take paragraphs, or pages, to develop.

Chekov’s razor focuses on threes, the first three paragraphs, and/or three pages of a manuscript, short story, or essay, but I’ve found this length arbitrary. When I begin a story, I think I have a full-fledged introduction on my hands. I don’t think anyone writes gibberish just to write gibberish, it feels like this could or should be the story at the time. I lock myself up when I try to determine if the writing is up to my standard, or if it’s going anywhere. I unlock myself by writing it and deleting later if necessary. 

 Chekov’s razor comes into play when we go back and delete if necessary. In those opening paragraphs is the gibberish that the writer used to familiarize them with the material. It was the entry point to defeat the blinking cursor.

In the course of writing past the blinking cursor stage, we discover pivot points that take us to the next stages of the story, but we don’t consider them anything more than what they are at the time. In the course of rewriting, however, we discover that the pivot point is the story. The frustration falls on two tracks, the first is that we fell in love with that original idea, and it’s tough to just walk away. The other is that we “wasted” so much time writing “the other” story that we loved. When writers achieve the ultimate point of objectivity, when they realize story is sacred, they begin sacrificing all the information they love to leave information you will. 

Thus, I don’t believe there is magic in the power of threes in employing Chekov’s Razor to storytelling. A central idea, or pivot point arrives in the course of writing, but the point of Chekov’s razor is to dump and delete the useless information the writer used to write the story.  

An important note to add here is that if most authors work the same way I do, we do not write for the expressed purpose of finding the core of our story. Our perspective is, we think we already have the story, and that the only chore involves building upon it. The discovery of the core of story often humbles the author and slaps them back to the realization that no matter how many times we write a story, the art of writing involves mining the brain for ideas rather than having a brain loaded with brilliant ideas. That conceit eventually reveals itself to those willing to write a lot of material, and it’s up to the author to recognize the difference for what it is, if they want a quality story.

It happens in the course of writing it, editing it after we’re done, or in the daydreaming stage that can last for days, weeks, or months. I do not enjoy deleting the chunks of material I’ve written, and I don’t think anyone does, but the quality author will develop the ability to recognize what portion of the story is for them and which portion is for the reader, and they will crib note or delete the part of the story that is for them.

I don’t consider the revelation of these techniques a glamorization of my process. I think it demystifies the process by suggesting that anyone can do this, as long as they write as often as they need to discover what should become the central focus for the reader. Every author needs to move past their conceit of their self-defined brilliance to find the story they’re trying to tell, and learn how to work from within it.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the most prominent use of Chekov’s razor can be found in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

How to Succeed in Writing XI: The Stages


“It is (the writer’s) job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. –George Orwell

We’ve all read authors who write from what Orwell calls the “immature stage”. They get locked in a stage of life they will not, or cannot, escape. They hate their parents, they cannot get over the fact that someone of the opposite sex has dumped them in an unceremonious manner, or they cannot get past the fact that their political party cannot win, and those mentalities are reflected in their writing. If, on the other hand, as Orwell states, a writer is afforded the ability to completely forget the transgressions and tragedies that made him miserable in his youth –that which may otherwise diminish their mental health– they may not be the writer they could’ve been if they learned how to embrace those demons. A quality writer, if Orwell’s thesis is to be believed, is one of those rare individuals who is cursed, and blessed, with the inability to forget, while capably moving to the next stage of maturity, coupled with the ability to recall all of those sentiments and mentalities they struggled with in their effort to achieve more mature stages.

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needsWe’ve all heard of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that lists the various needs a person must satisfy to achieve a sense of completion.  The initial stages of the hierarchy concerns basic needs (food, water, and breathing) that we take for granted, until they are not met. As this hierarchy progresses to completion, the needs become more complex, and the need to satisfy them more profound. There is also an idea that that person may take one level for granted –such as the need for friendship, and the need to be loved– and they may regress back a level. The basic structure of the Hierarchy of Needs suggests, however, that one cannot progress to next level, until the needs of the prior level are satisfied. Every person is different, of course, but the basic tenets are such that most people are not immune to the needs of a level you are currently on, and our stubborn refusal to accept the idea that we need more of whatever you currently have, has us stuck at that level.

Orwell’s addendum to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pertains to writers. His quote basically states that while writers are not immune to the need to progress in all the ways Maslow outlined, and that their progress is elemental to better writing, it’s just as vital to the quality of the writing that they be able to tap into the angst that drove them to want to be a writer while mired in a previous stage.

The best, most stark example, may be the starving artist that wrote something while mired in a premature stage. The piece they wrote may have been beautiful on one level, but it was generally regarded as being on the cusp of brilliance. The beauty of their piece may have been contained its raw exploration of their vulnerabilities, but it was also considered a snapshot of what this artist might be capable of ultimately, as it offered no solutions. Their piece was more of a list of complaints with no end in sight, a characteristic that can be compelling in its own right.

As we’ve witnessed, in all crafts, some starving artists never reach their full potential. Some of them become trapped in the starving artist mindset, or elementary stage of need, and they never gain a complete enough understanding of themselves, and thus mankind, to achieve a greater, or more complete artistic piece. Or, they may have progressed through the channels of their needs so completely that they’ve lost their need to create artistic pieces. It’s also been the case that a starving artist’s original piece was so successful that the person became successful and lost the starving artist mindset that gave them fame, and every piece they write thereafter is retread. This lack of artistic progression may be as simple as the artist never progressing to the self-actualized stage.

The website Simple Psychology states that “Maslow estimated that only two percent of people will reach the state of self-actualization.”

Is Maslow wrong, or are we? Are we a member of the ninety-eight percent, and does this affect our writing in such a manner that we don’t have the objectivity necessary to write a compelling fictional character, much less conduct our lives in a self-actualized manner?

As one that has progressed through a stage fairly recently, I can tell you that that progression served my writing well. I would not say that I’m a member of the two percent, but I have progressed, and I didn’t wake one day with the realization that I had progressed either. It was only upon reflection that I realized that only after one of my fundamental needs was met did my writing progress. I look back on my “immature stage” and I realized how much better my writing has become. I realized that my inability to complete a piece was more of a commentary on my inability to progress through my personal hierarchy of needs than it was my artistic abilities. I’ve also managed to keep in touch with all of the angst that drove some of my earlier works to bring them to completion in a manner I may not have if I hadn’t progressed.