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First, this question is not quite about writer's block or dealing with self-criticism.

I find myself often in the following situation: I want to write a short piece of non-fiction and have plenty of ideas to drive the discussion from a nice introduction to the heart of topic, to an end that wraps the discussion in a nice manner. I decide what to say in the first paragraph, with a view to catch the reader's attention and to introduce the theme in an original way...

...then I am so happy with the structure I want to develop, that I get bogged down trying to construct the perfect first sentence; and it takes a looong time to make it come out just right. Then for the second paragraph the same, and so on.

I am happy with the end results, but it is a drag. Now, I am aware of the notion that the first draft should be rough and that the editing process comes later. I am ok with that. What I need to know is how to quickly find the approximate turn of phrase I want in the beginning so I can continue into the main body of the piece?

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5 Answers

Use placeholders. If you have an idea of what you want a phrase to accomplish but you aren't there yet, just jot it down in brackets so you know what to do when you come back to polish. ("TK" is slang for "to come," and here it means "I will come back and finish this.")

The script for "Plato's Stepchildren" had Kirk being forced to kiss Uhura, making it the first interracial kiss broadcast on national television. [TK callback to Chekov as Russian, Spock as non-human, Sulu as Asian on bridge as full-fledged characters i/o stereotypes; this is another barrier shattered] While the director asked for several takes where they almost kissed, Shatner and Nichols were so keen on the groundbreaking idea that they deliberately ruined every take except the one with the historic kiss.

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I have also seen TBD, To Be Done. –  Paul A. Clayton Sep 12 '13 at 11:42
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I have the exact same problem whenever I sit down to write.

I like the idea of placeholders (like Lauren suggested) and I use that a lot. If I find myself stuck while writing a sentence, I just add some placeholders or, more often, asterisks that refer to notes on a separate page. If needed I add simple sketches/illustrations to my notes so that when I come back to elaborate on that part I can recover the scene more quickly in my head.

At first it is a little hard to get used to this process (if you are like me) because you will feel that by not righting the perfect paragraph right away you are leaving a hole behind (well, you are, in a sense). But once you get used, it is a real relief that you can go on unloading the ideas your head more fluidly.

Another technique I've been trying is to first write a scene in the form of a script (play or comics format). This way I can quickly describe to myself the whole scene, the characters and a rough approximation of the dialogue I want. This allows me to review the scene iteratively while adding annotations to the narrative elements separately (e.g. dialogue, scene description, point of view, etc). It also helps me to get a clear picture of the scene almost like I would see it in a movie.

e.g.

SCENE 1

CAMERA (or point of view): on the bridge, facing the opposite of traffic direction. To the right and above a man can be seen preparing to jump from the top of the steel support. A few pedestrians notice the man and stop to look. Some are taking pictures. One of them, a young man, is protecting his eyes from the sun with his hands while he looks up and screams something.

CHARACTERS (important roles in the scene): a man ready to jump into the river, a young man who stops to try and stop the suicide.

DIALOGUE:

Young man screams: "Hey Jeff! It is off! They are not after you anymore! They are leaving you alone! Don't do that!"

Jeff (the man ready to jump) screams back (hard to hear due to the strong wind): "You are lying! I can hear them coming, but they won't follow me into the water. They can't!"

Well, not a very creative example, but you can probably get the idea.

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Star Trek writers used [TECH] in first drafts when it was obvious that the technobabble was not the point of the scene. It's just to indicate "technical solution to be inserted later." –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 12 '13 at 15:08
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@Lauren Usually involving dilithium crystals in the original, then tachyon fields in TNG. See also, reversing the polarity {insert tvtropes link here}. –  KitFox Sep 13 '13 at 15:39
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I'm not sure that you can. Good writing is hard work. But two thoughts, neither of which is intended to be offensive. They are what I find helpful.

First, I try to avoid perfectionistic tendencies. As a recovering perfectionist, I find that forcing myself past the beginning helps. I can come back and hit it later. But realistically, I do spend the most time on the opening parts of a work (both fiction and non-fiction). I spend less time once I've (hopefully) gotten the hook written, however long that takes.

Second, I like reading in the genre. If you're writing technical books, read more of them so that turns of phrase come more easily. Everyone talks about originality, but honestly, the point of writing is to communicate and that's often done by using ideas and words that people already know.

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The fastest way to find the nice turn of phrase is to write the whole piece. The phrase you seek will often just fall out of your fingers as you write. Or when you read the piece after you've written it, you will notice the themes that you've weaved throughout. Or you will get a feeling or a thought or an image as you experience the whole piece after you've written it.

For any of that to happen, you have to write the piece first.

Remember: You don't need to write the piece in the order that readers will read it.

You might be able to find exactly the right turn of phrase before you write the rest of the piece. But more likely it will come during or after the writing.

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I believe a combination of two things would work better in your case.

I use a lot of placeholders for names of things - characters, places, etc. When I'm writing fantasy, or sci-fi, for example, I don't want to go around looking for the names (I like to research everything, including names, before making a commitment).

However, placeholders for what you want to say might work very well, or they mightn't if you keep thinking about them. In that case, a bad sentence will work better, because the idea is spelled out, even though it's not "perfect", and you can always go back later and change it.

Also, just keep writing. It doesn't have to come out exactly the way you want it the first time. Many writers come up with a perfect first line (or paragraph) to get it going, and then wade in and get the job done - polishing it later. Most people who want perfect turns of phrase tend to lose steam and the resulting text gives off that feeling of being deflated (it might not be your case, though).

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