Problem Sentences

Sentences come in many varieties: there are elegant sentences, workhorse sentences, clever sentences, short sentences, and long sentences. There are also problem sentences. You know the ones: you keep coming back to them and making changes without every being satisfied. In fact, after a while, you start to suspect that your newest changes are simply reinstating earlier versions of the sentence. This back-and-forth alone is significant; if you are alternating between two versions of a sentence without ever being happy with either, you need to do something dramatic. This need is intensified by the fact that these problem sentences are generally important sentences. I am generalizing, of course, but I am doing so with lots of evidence. The sentences that we use to convey key points are more likely to give us trouble, both because our investment in the topic can cloud our thinking and because our key points generally involve a complex array of information.

When you are confronted with such a sentence, my suggestion is to try what I call ‘blank-side-of-the-page writing’. Since sentences have this way of wearing a groove in our brains, we need strategies to help us get a fresh start. In one-on-one writing consultations, I often ask students to tell me what a challenging sentence is about. What they say is generally much stronger that what they have written. And stronger in two ways: more direct and less brief. You can see why direct is better, but you may be wondering why I am praising a lack of brevity. Indeed, most of us are less concise in writing than we ought to be, until we try to convey our key point; then, many of us become positively telegraphic. Forcing ourselves to devote more ink to our own ideas is a sure way to improve academic writing.

If you write down—on the blank side of the page—exactly what you come up with when you try to convey the key point to an imaginary interlocutor, you will have something new with which to work. Even if all you do is disrupt the pattern of futile revision, you will be ahead of where you were. But you may find that you do considerably more than that by forcing yourself to rearticulate a key point. Certainly, by inserting a potential reader into the process, you are immediately improving your chances of structuring your ideas in a way that will suit that reader.

It is hard to show an example of this technique since it requires an actual conversation (either between writer and writing instructor or between writer and herself/himself). But try it yourself and see whether it helps you. Here is how the process might work:

  1. Identify a sentence that has been giving you trouble. 
  2. Read it over, identifying its key ideas and thinking about the relationship between its parts.
  3. Turn over the page, so you can no longer see the original sentence.
  4. Imagine someone asking you what you were trying to say in the original sentence.
  5. Answer that question aloud and try to write down verbatim what you come up with. At this stage, be fulsome: take advantage of the fact that we tend to articulate things more fully in spoken language.
  6. Assess what you have come up with, remaining open to all possibilities (Should it be more than one sentence? Is it undermined by missing information? Does it appear at the correct point in the text?).
  7. Finally, edit it to be sure that it hasn’t retained any of the informal tone you many have introduced by transcribing a spoken version.

This strategy can help you get past an impasse with a particular sentence and can help you to push yourself to articulate your key ideas with more clarity and precision.

One response to “Problem Sentences

  1. Dear Rachel,
    Thank you for the most helpful strategies we would follow to help us clear up fuzzy-constructed sentences. I have to confess that having an imaginary reader seems difficult for me to create. However, linking the idea of the imaginary reader with the blank page appears much much more doable. I guess that this is just my own pov.
    Best regards,

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