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!