Embrace the Cliche!

Last Friday I asked the students in my Technical Writing group what sentence they found the most difficult to write. They answered the same way all my writing students do every time I ask that question: the first one. Once they have got started they are usually able to continue, but it is writing that first sentence that proves to be their biggest challenge.

Why? Even if my students are not linguists, they are mostly quite clever. You would expect them to be able to write something as simple as a good first sentence of an essay. But they’re not. And there are at least two reasons for this. One, it is actually quite difficult to write something that is easy to read. Two, my students don’t compromise. Being as clever as they are at calculating stuff, they are used to giving the correct answer to every question in one go. They don’t believe in drafts.

As a result, many students take a lot of time trying to say something brilliant in their first sentence. But writing something brilliant is bloody difficult and even experienced writers don’t usually manage to do that in a first attempt. So how to go about this? What can you do to write something clever?

My advice: start with something stupid. Something obvious. Use a cliché. And then continue writing. I promise this will be easy, because you’ve got your first sentence. Once you’ve got that one, the rest of the paragraph is easy. And before you know it you’ve written an entire section.

And then comes the magic trick. When you have finished the first couple of paragraphs or section, have a good look at your first sentence (the cliché one) and slowly and deliberately cross it out. Yes, I know this is very unpleasant (in the teaching world this is called “kill your darlings”). Now look at the sentence that was your second sentence and is now the first. See if you’ve come to the point yet in that sentence. If not, cross it out. Keep doing this until you have a first sentence that makes you happy. Sometimes you only need to cross out the first sentence, sometimes you’ll need to cross out the entire first paragraph. Usually, that is all you need to do to end up with a very good start.

Interestingly, there are quite a few students who almost get this right. They write wonderful clichés, utter grotesque platitudes or mind-boggling truisms and then they don’t recognise these for what they are. They don’t see that all they need to do to be brilliant is to cross out the first one or two sentences.

I have seen this a million times. Sometimes I have to help and occasionally a student will swear out loud when I solemnly cross out their first sentences for them – and then they grin. They swear because they suddenly realize they have been writing nonsense, which hurts, and they grin because two seconds later they see that their text is suddenly much sharper.

So next time when you’re having trouble writing those first sentences: embrace the cliché!





Why I think that lectures that don’t get applause at the end have failed (and how I think you can fix that).

When we design courses for our students, at some point we decide that the best thing to do is to put all our students in a large room and talk to them for 90 minutes. Usually, we do this because it’s cheap, which is not a good reason. Often, we do this to convey information, which is also not a good reason.

sleeping students

Mind you, I’m not against lectures are such, but I do want lectures to be taught for the right reasons.  I think that lectures may be cheap but they should also be valuable.  I think that lectures may be informative but they should be about insight. Students are experts at recognising if a lecture offers value and insights or not and they will react accordingly. A lecture without applause at the end has failed.

If we simply use lectures to convey information we find ourselves competing with books, journals and the entire Internet. That is a battle we are going to lose. Books, journals and the Internet can be accessed day and night, chapters of books can be re-read or skipped willy-nilly, websites can even be translated into anyone’s native language at a mouse click. Lectures can’t do any of that and personally I have no intention of being available in the middle of the night to answer my students’ questions.

But there are things that we can do in our lectures that books and journals and the Internet are less good at.  For instance, we are really good at interpreting information, pointing out highlights, showing strengths and weaknesses of academic practices, influencing students’ attitudes towards particular phenomena. We can offer our specialist view on things, make connections to different fields of study. We can interact with students, asking for their opinions, insights and questions, we can check if they understand what we are talking about. And if they don’t, we can react immediately by offering explanations, rephrasing things, giving examples etc, until they do.

And we can entertain! Yes, I know, books and journals and particularly the Internet can also entertain but that’s not what I mean. I do not think that we should try to be funny all the time, I think that there is no way that all the students in the lecture hall are going to be focused for the entire ninety minutes. We are really good at occasionally pointing out the absurd outcomes of our competitor’s research, the unexpected behaviour of our research subjects or the number of mosquito bites that we suffered during fieldwork. We can use these mental breaks to regain the students’ attention so that they are ready to absorb the next tricky bit of information, and to give them something to remember our lectures by. Which means that the entertainment should always be somehow connected to the content and the purpose of our lectures.


Students in our lecture halls are an audience and they should be treated as such. If they get the feeling that you’re just repeating what’s already in the book that you have made them buy, they will feel that the lecture is a waste of time. And they will be right. If they feel, however, that you have something to add to the book, the journals and the Internet, like  your interpretation, your expert opinions, your insights, if you show your willingness to interact with them and to entertain them, if they notice that you have worked your fingers to the bone to make this lecture valuable especially for them, I guarantee that you will have applause at the end.