Are sentences keeping you from writing?

by JC

One of the primary functions of imitation is its problem solving capacity. It makes use of experience – one’s own and that of others – to find solutions. Applied to writing, imitation means that we do not need to invent a new form every time we want to express an idea. Trial-and-error writing depends too much on reinventing the wheel. Much more efficient is to ask: How has this this problem been solved before? – Dana Gorrell

Picture this:

You’re taking a long, hot shower. All of a sudden you have an epiphany. A big idea has just surfaced out of the depths of your subconscious, and you want to write about it. You come up with a title for your piece on the spot and hurry to write it down before it slips your memory. You’re excited, and you’ve got high hopes for how this idea will pan out. All you need to do now is sit down and flesh it out on paper. Easy, right? Not really.

A few days after your epiphany you sit down with the intention to write. You start to struggle. You sit there staring down the page, fingers ready, brows furrowed. You write one sentence at a time, fretting for five minutes before you write the next. Maybe you string together half a sentence, but then… oh no, you lost it. There was no good way to finish it, so you delete it. Back to square one. You’re certain you have a great idea, but it’s simply impossible to spit it out. You’re stumbling over the words, so you continue to sit there scratching your head… thinking, but not writing.

We all have great ideas mulling about in our heads, but when it comes time to articulate those ideas – to speak or put them on paper – we struggle. Why? Why is it so much more difficult to actually write down our ideas than it is to think about them?

In my experience, it’s because I’m not comfortable writing sentences. I don’t think in sentences, let alone paragraphs. My mind flits from idea to idea, giving me the impression I’m thinking, yet when I sit down to write I realize there are no sentences. There’s no shape or form to the thoughts I have throughout the day. The struggle of writing is in giving shape to those thoughts: sorting them, arranging them, finding the words with which to say them. It’s hard to shove your ideas through the filter of syntax, and it’s even harder if you’ve trying to do it all yourself. Where can we look for help?

How about our favorite authors? Instead of deferring to our old teachers’ rules for proper writing, how would our favorite writers solve the problem? How would they express your idea? Hunt for sentences and passages that express ideas like yours. What makes them effective, beautiful, or compelling? Analyze their form. What structures do they use to express themselves? How many clauses do they use? What pronouns? Substitute your words in for theirs. This is the approach I’ve been taking recently, and it’s gotten me through the initial phase of writing – getting thoughts on paper – better than anything I’ve tried before. There’s an entire method of teaching composition through studying and imitating the masters, and I plan to write more about it. For now I’ll leave you with an analogy.

Do you know how classical musicians learn their craft? They don’t improvise in the beginning. Rather, they train themselves by imitating the masters who preceded them. They spend years studying and practicing pieces by classic composers until they know them by heart. Only then, if at all, do they make their own music. Likewise, renaissance painters developed their skills by apprenticing under and imitating the masters before them. Why not do the same with writing?