It’s the First Sentence that Kills

Its the first sentence

If you want to write, try bottom-up thinking.

Upon discovering what I do, some folks say to me, “Wow, you’re a writer? What do you write about?” I rattle off the various subjects I write about, then they tell me, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer myself,” or “I’m thinking of writing a book about (fill in the blanks). How do I start?”

I’ll be honest, at this point in the conversation, I usually start feeling pretty grateful that I’m lucky enough to be able to pay the bills doing what many only dream of. Being a writer is a little like being an actor, or a painter. At some point in their lives, many have secretly wanted to do this, but after repeated failed attempts at getting published, they kill the dream because their first break never came, or they never earned enough to live comfortably.

Everyone can write, but not many people end up becoming professional writers. Why is that?

Writing is simply putting ideas onto paper (or into cyberspace), and everyone has ideas and access to paper, correct? Spelling, grammar, vocabulary and syntax can surely be learned and improved on with practice.

Writing is essentially about having something to say and being able to say it well. More than that, good writing is about getting a message across succinctly and in a way that will compel others to pay attention and to act or react. Effective writing makes others think, rethink and agree with you (this is what advertising agencies and political campaign managers pay writers a lot for!). Sometimes, effective writing moves readers to a place of disagreeability and even outrage (as is the case with sitcom and crime novel writers or tabloid writers). Indeed, writing well is a skill that everyone can benefit greatly from.

Having spent the last 17 years writing and editing magazine features, books (both fiction and non-fiction), advertisements and corporate content, I’ve discovered one of the most common reasons why people abandon the prospect of a writing career – they get tired of having to repeatedly compose a first sentence.

Every article begins with a sentence. As a professional writer you will need to produce a lot of first sentences, sometimes on topics you know nothing about. And this first line is often the hardest to write.

In his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman writes about bottom-up versus top-down neural circuitry. He explains how the bottom-up mind, which operates from the midbrain, is quicker, automatic, intuitive and emotionally-driven, while the top-down mind, which operates from the prefrontal area of the brain is slower, voluntary, effortful and the seat of self-control.

Bottom-up thinking is therefore an instinctual process that results in spontaneous, engaging and focused results, whereas top-down thinking is calculated, controlled and self-conscious. Goleman uses the case of athlete Lolo Jones who lost the gold medal for the women’s 100-meter hurdle race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics to illustrate how top-down thinking can be an obstacle to winning.

Using Jones’ own recall of the loss and feedback from researchers, Goleman concludes, “when she began to think about the details of her technique, instead of just leaving the job to the motor circuits that had practice these moves to mastery, Jones had shifted from relying on her bottom-up system to interference from the top.” In other words, she had thought about performing well, which inevitable led to her tripping up. Paradoxically, the very act of thinking about what we want and expect of ourselves sabotages our chances of success. This is very true with writing.

In my early years as a writer, I would sit in front of a word processer for what felt like hours trying to write the perfect first sentence. I would then spend the next hour rewriting it, before leaving the whole thing alone and calling it a day. All this work for a 250-word review of a jazz album that I was working on pro bono! There was something about the awareness that this album review would be available to the public and irrevocable that made me feel as if all of my credibility as a human being rested on the opening sentence.

The entire process of attempting to write this first sentence with my self-conscious, critical, top-down mind would be enough to exhaust me mentally and emotionally. By the time I’d decided that I just wasn’t “inspired” enough to produce anything good in that sitting, I was also quite convinced that this writing business just wasn’t for me.

I have a fiction folder full of false starts. Documents with single sentences that just might be the beginning of my next short story, essay or novel. I’ve just deleted all of these one-sentence or single paragraph documents because they were contrived and constructed from the perspective of eliciting a complimentary response from an imaginary audience; not from what my braver, less approval-seeking self had to say.

To be a writer takes practice and daring. You are not a writer unless you are writing regularly – and a lot of the time imperfectly. You’ll need to dive in and conquer one first sentence after another until you stop worrying about whether or not it “reads well”.

Think of the first sentence as an enema, its purpose is simply to get everything else out. The first sentence is not final and you can always change it after you’ve birthed the full-scope of your idea on page. Don’t let that first sentence kill your desire to write. Crank it out and move on. A writer’s mind cannot be static. It needs to move away from the micro (a single sentence) to the macro (the idea you want to convey). It should not be allowed to stay stuck in a place of judgement, analysis or repair (you can do this at the editing stage). Move, move, move. Fill the page. That’s the only way to sustain a mental state conducive to writing. If that first sentence is keeping you from writing as much as you’d like to, tell yourself this: at the end of the day, the only reader that needs to like it is you.

Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo 2014

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