The Perfect Sentence Vortex and How to Escape It

Does this sound familiar?  You sit down to write.  You read over your notes to work out what you’re going to say and check up a couple of articles. You write a sentence.  You check the sentence over, and rearrange it.  You enter the full bibliographic details of your quotation, and double check the format in the MLA Handbook. You change a word. You go back to a third article to check a fact. You change a date. Then you move on to the next sentence.  In reading over the notes for the new sentence, you note that ‘articulate’ would be a better word than ‘explains’, so you go back to the first sentence and tweak it. Then you repeat.

This is the perfect sentence vortex, a never ending cycle of incremental improvements that means you write excruciatingly slowly, and are never satisfied with what you write. It’s pretty horrific. Which is why I know a lot of people who procrastinate, putting off sitting down to write as a way of avoiding the Vortex.

Or, if they can’t endlessly polish every sentence before moving on to the next one,  they leave it to the last minute and dash it down fast—that way they know it’s not perfect and they have an excuse when they are criticized.  And I don’t blame them.

Pretty much everyone I’ve been talking to this week has told me about a version of this. They’re all near the end of their candidature, they have a deadline for their first full draft due in a matter of months, and they are all certain they will never meet it.

I love writing, I write really fast, and I enjoy it. When I write, I feel energized. So hearing these stories makes me sad. But it also challenges me to think about what I do, and what people who write effectively do, so I could tell you about it.

I’ve been working on this for a while.  And what I’ve found is that what you are doing are doing is not totally wrong. You are doing all the right steps, in the right order, just for the wrong length of time. 

 

Think -> Write -> Edit -> Polish

The Writing Cycle
by Katherine Firth

What you’re currently doing for each sentence looks like this:

The Thinking phase includes looking over your research, making plans, and conceptualizing. This is where you talk about the work, make flowcharts and bullet points, bring together your research and shape it into an argument.

The Writing Phase is the jump from blank document to prose, the jump from ideas to words. It’s the first draft, it’s ‘generative writing’, or as my friend calls it, the ‘Shitty First Draft’. It’s all about all about getting enough words onto the page.  Don’t worry if they are good words (otherwise you will be like this guy ).

Then there is an Editing phase. Structural Editing involves seeing the work as a whole and working on structure and argument. ‘This paragraph would be better in chapter 3’ and ‘I need to unpack this sentence to explain what I mean here’ are both editing comments.  So is, ‘There is a major gap here that requires more research and writing’. Editing includes re-writing, arranging, and shaping, as well as writing topic sentences that connect paragraphs to the argument

Finally there is a Polishing phase, which includes proof-reading (or copy editing), spelling, grammar, punctuation and referencing. This phase involves seeing the work in detail. This is where you adjust your word choices, check that your quote actually is from page 54 or volume 17, and look up the MLA handbook to check about how to quote unpublished manuscripts.

As you can see, each of these phases is quite different and belongs to a different stage of the writing process. And yet, many perfectionists, try to Think about the next sentence (perhaps re-reading an article or two);  then Write the sentence; then Rearrange the sentence; then check their spelling and Polish it; before moving on to the next sentence.  Apparently it takes you 16 minutes to refocus after checking your email; so you’re never working at top speed.  Imagine what moving between conceptualizing and rearranging and formatting is doing to your productivity.

So: Stop doing the writing cycle for every sentence. Do it for sections no shorter than 500 words. That is all.

This is why people find Shut Up and Write and Thesis Boot Camp work so well.  Why my habit of 2 Pomodoros on planning (with the Cornell Method) and the 2 Pomodoros on Shut up and Write were so effective last year. It makes you spend longer in each phase.  25 minutes writing is so much more effective than 2 minutes, because you stay focused, so you produce about 500-1000 words (most people’s daily limit). And because it is effective, it is rewarding. It’s enjoyable.  You succeed.

It also divides the phases in time, manner and place. I am most effective if I Think, research and plan while out walking, while sitting with pen and paper, between other (often manual) tasks, like gardening or taking public transport.  I give myself a break of 2 hours to 2 weeks between finishing the research/planning Thinking, and sitting down to Write.

I Write best at a desk, in my office or in a café, on the computer, for 2-4 uninterrupted hours with music playing in the background.  I then give myself another 2 hr-2 week break before I return to Edit.

I like to Edit with a print-out and a pen, on my knee on the sofa. I give myself another break (longer this time if possible) before I return again to Proof read and polish.

I like to Proof and polish on the computer, and then I must have silence.  In fact, the University of Melbourne (for one!) allows you to pay for a professional editor to help with this stage.

Giving myself a break, means I return each time refreshed, with critical distance, which makes me less likely to miss mistakes, but also more likely to see how good what I wrote was. I discover, after a break, that my ‘Shitty First Draft’ was often more like 65% there. When I’m marking, that’s an H3, it’s ‘competent’. And only 15% off being excellent. And excellent is good enough.

Be kind to yourself. Use the different skills you are already using, but work in sections rather than sentences, and watch your productivity increase, your self-esteem recover, and your enjoyment of the writing process blossom.  Honestly, this changes people’s lives, it’s like magic. Go. Do.

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About Katherine Firth

I teach research and writing skills at the University of Melbourne, primarily as Head of Academic Programs at Trinity College. I run @AcadTrinity and the occaisional #thesisbootcamp.

22 comments

  1. Barbara Kamler and I call your editing phase refining, because its actually quite a lot more work than people usually associate with editing… We’ve adapted explorestyles reverse outlines as one of the strategies to use here.

    • Thanks Pat! For those who don’t know it, Explorations of Style’s idea of the Reverse Outline looks at both the architectonic of the whole work (using numbered paragraphs) and the paragraph/sentence itself. (So it crosses my Edit/Polish sections). It’s another helpful way to consider that phase of the project. Unlike Pat, I find the people I currently see are more likely to refine (or edit, or polish) for too long, working too hard at it, and not write enough; I’d be interested in why that might be different!

      • I was only commenting on the nature of the activity, not the length of time. Our experience is that people spend time, whether long or short, on the micro level rather than getting at the bigger structural issues in the text because that’s what they think editing means.

    • Also, anyone who wants to see more of what Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler have to say about writing should go here for a linkolator to all their thesis writing goodness. (I also recommend their book!).

  2. Thanks Katherine, this is all very sound advice. For what it’s worth, I tried to expand on the Writing stage of the cycle here (I go for 300 rather than 500 words, but the principle is the same). http://peterwebster.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/the-300-words-a-day-rule/

    • Thanks Peter! If you’re doing Shut Up and Write (2 times 25 minutes) then most people can get out about 250 words, twice. If you’re using another time management tool, like Kerry Ann Rocquemore’s 30 minutes a day (for example this blog post here), then 300 would work too. Basically, anything that isn’t the 25-50 words of your current sentence! (As you found.) How is the writing going for you?

  3. Thanks Pat! Yes, that’s my experience too! Thanks for the clarification.

  4. Leanne Grech

    Katherine you are a thesis Shaman – I am posting this up on my reception postgrads group page!

  5. Oh thank-you so much, I am so relieved that there is a sentence-vortex cure! I’ve been stuck here for ages!!

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  8. Although I agree in principle, there are times when you do have to slow right down and think about a sentence and get it right. I advise varying your pace and varying the length of the cycle depending on the difficulty and importance of the idea you are trying to express.

    I have seen so many people get stuck because they feel they must always be “producing” and, and so they never spend enough time thinking in order to solve those difficult problems of expression.

    There is a danger in using only one technique for all writing situations. Some perfectionism isn’t always a bad thing.

    • Thanks James! This is a helpful refinement. The post was written for people who are stuck in the ‘perfect sentence vortex of doom’ for literally every single sentence. That’s obviously an issue.
      However, as you say, sometimes a sentence is absolutely the crux of an argument, or the link between seemingly disparate parts that need to be brought together, or the place where you are articulating something new and original for the first time. These are ‘big’ sentences and sometimes take 2 weeks and a writing cycle all on their own.
      But for the bulk of your writing, especially outside the Introduction and Methodology, it often is bulk writing. Those sentences are small, you can just get on and write in blocks.
      I personally think perfectionism is always a hindrance–if you have perfectionist tendencies they will always be something that is working against you, making you do more or worry more than you need to (and do more out of obsession, worry more out of compulsion).
      Aiming for excellence and being careful and putting in the work to get it right are all healthy, though.

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  11. waylandia

    Ah, the perfect sentence….I recognize these tendencies in myself. Your advice is very useful, and I’ll share this with my postgrad group. James Hayton’s comment rang true, too; there is a place for occasional perfectionism, and the panic induced by a self-designated requirement to ‘just write’ can block new ideas and their development. Your cycle seems to incorporate a good balance of reflection and production, though. Thanks!

    • I’m glad you find this useful! Yes, there’s a place for ‘now, just write’ but it’s after much thinking, learning and becoming disciplined. I don’t think anyone should ‘write the thesis from day one’–though producing useful texts like annotated bibliographies or descriptive plans can be valuable.
      By the end of third year, though, it’s time to stop researching and planning and just churn those words out. Because you know what you are doing, the words are often excellent words. There is editing, but little rewriting for most people.

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