Fountain pen

Struggling with sentences

Now that I’m more than a year and a half into my doctoral program and have wrestled with dozens of papers, short and long, I believe I’ve finally put my finger on an ineffable experience that I seem to encounter with some frequency, particularly when working with later drafts of something that I’ve written and rewritten a half-dozen times already.

As I just noted, this is something ineffable, but I’ll attempt to describe the experience anyway. Say I’m staring at a paragraph that just isn’t quite right–perhaps I need to add an additional source, or introduce a contrasting idea, or both. I will find myself staring at the screen, silently (or sometimes not) screaming at the computer, almost paralyzed–it is unbelievably difficult to put my hand on the mouse, maneuver the cursor, click, and start typing.

I know what you’re thinking. “Why?” (Or, more likely, “Who cares?”)

Believe me, I brushed this feeling off and just soldiered through it, until I started to think that maybe there was something to it. Maybe this was my mind objecting to something I was doing–something that my postmodern friends might call “violence” (violating the words!). The more I thought about it, the more this made sense to me.

Consider a typical paper-writing process. Many people start with an outline–I don’t, typically, but I do something not too dissimilar. I’ll generally work on my introductory paragraph, shaping it until I’m fairly happy with the hook and the thesis, and then to preserve any thoughts that I might have about the content I’ll skip a couple spaces down the page and write a series of crude sentences (usually more of a phrase, or a series of keywords) to jog my memory later of things that I want to be sure to include. Things progress from there; typically my thoughts flow fairly organically, but by the time I’m finished with a first draft, which I will usually put away for at least a couple hours (a couple days is better, but hey, let’s be honest), it’s largely in the  shape it will stay in. Rare indeed is the project where I return to a rough draft and completely demolish it unless it was just garbage to begin with.

So, in essence, large and substantive portions of a rough draft–my brain vomit–harden (ew) into the final form that my piece will take, until I’m given feedback or asked to make changes.

That is when the trouble starts.

I don’t mean that I object to feedback–I most certainly do not; in fact, I actively solicit it (probably too much of it, sometimes). But when it comes time to incorporate changes, I feel like I’ve been asked to install a faucet in the side of a cake–something just feels off. But I don’t think that this struggle means I’m resistant to ideas–I think it’s something more granular than that.

I think I may respect sentences too much.

Yeah, it sounds weird.

What I mean is this: Sentences are hard, man. It is difficult to write a good sentence, particularly one that will hold the reader’s attention strongly enough to funnel it past the concluding punctuation mark and into the first word of the sentence that follows. It’s harder still to write sentences that aren’t tortured messes (like that previous whopper). But by the time I’ve finished a draft of something, there’s–ideally–something in each sentence that I like. I’m a prolific backspacer–if I don’t like a sentence, it’s going to be obliterated. So in the best of cases, the vast majority of those sentences are going to have their microscopic hooks in me.

What I guess I’m saying is that it hurts me to obliterate these little “idea units” that I like in subsequent drafts. Somebody please tell me that I’m not the only one who feels this way.