The Perfect Sentence Vortex and How to Escape It
by Katherine Firth
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.
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.