By Ben Curran
It’s an interesting thing, writing the first post. It’s an interesting thing writing the first line.
Whether it’s the first line of a paper, a chapter, a grant application or a blog post, I always find the first line … daunting. It’s only now, having finished the thesis and other things need to be written, that I recall how awful that first line is. Even if there is a specific goal behind the writing, an idea that you set out to communicate, what words do you choose for the first sentence? Who are you talking to? What sort of tone are you after? These are things that paralyse the first line.
And then there’s the times when you’re forcing yourself to write when there is no specific goal other than to practice writing. I liken this situation to the one I encountered all too often in one of my previous incarnations as a bartender – there’s always a customer who comes in at some point and says “surprise me”. Most often they got a glass of water.
Like it or not, writing is a large part of what we do. Sure, the thinking, the testing, the figuring out what’s going on are important, but in the end they mean nothing if we can’t communicate the results. And for larger audiences, writing is the primary means of communication.
Writing has to start somewhere though. Writing the first line, whether it’s a good sentence or not, is always awful. It is almost certainly going to be at least edited, if not entirely removed. Which makes it, in the greater scheme of things, not particularly important. This, to a certain extent, can be extended to the entire first draft of pretty much any work. One of my PhD supervisors, in an effort to get me writing, used to stress that whatever I wrote for the first draft was going to come back with red ink all over it. I was told to just write something, anything, a foundation upon which the story you are trying to tell could be built.
If you’re not used to working with wood, there is often a feeling of trepidation in making the first cut. Making the first bend in a piece of metal, applying the soldering iron for the first time to a circuit board. All of these things impart a sense of beginning and often the thought that runs through your head is “what if I screw it up”. It’s the same thing with writing. Measure twice, cut once, Dad said. The first draft is only the first measurement. The first sentence is only the first line on the plans, drawn with pencil.
So if you have a specific idea to communicate, start writing. After a while that feeling of trepidation is replaced by familiarity. Knowing the first draft is only the rough plan of your work means that, eventually, writing the first sentence becomes … an odd thing. Just odd. And yet familiar, interesting even.
And as a scientist, when I see something interesting, I usually want to stop and take a serious look. Turn it over, see how it works. This is where it can be good if you don’t have a specific idea to communicate, put that first, odd sentence down and see where it takes you. Possibly somewhere very much like here.