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How to unravel your words

You sit down at your computer, ready to say something. You know your audience. You know your message or your narrative. You even know how many words you want to use.

And then: that terrible thing happens.

You freeze.

The words are there, but you can’t get them started. You’re like a stalled car on a cold day.

The trick, I have found, is simpler than you might think. It’s always in the first sentence. You just have to release it from the tangle in your head. Once you’ve got that, the rest falls into place.

Your brain can be temperamental, though, like a two-year-old clutching to a favourite toy: it just won’t let go. So you have to sweeten it, schmooze it, appeal to it, coach it bit by bit out into the open.

When I used to work ridiculous hours as a community newspaper editor, and I had maybe 10 stories I had to write by the end of the day, I’d scribble out just the first two or three sentences of each before I left for work. I carried my little spiral-bound notebook around with me while I made breakfast, organized children, did my hair, let the cat out.

On a good day, I had the first sentence or two for each story started. On days that weren’t as good, I’d have at least three or four words I wanted to use in my first sentence. I’d mull them over on my way to work. And then, when I sat down to dive into a story, I’d pull out my first sentence for that story --­ and away I’d go.

It almost never failed, but sometimes it did.

When it did, and I just couldn’t get started, even with my packet of first sentences, I’d put my computer aside and resort to ancient technology. I'd take out an old-fashioned legal pad and my best pencil. I’d start writing, stream-of-consciousness-style, about what I wanted to say. It didn’t matter what it looked like or how illiterate it appeared, because no one could see it.

It didn’t take long for the magic to start. Within five or 10 minutes, the first sentence would emerge out of the word jungle in my brain.

At that point, it didn’t matter what I did. I could answer the phone, go to the kitchen to make coffee, chat with a colleague. I could relax. My sentence was there, like money in the bank. It was waiting for me to take it and run with it.

You’ll have your own way of enticing that first sentence to come out. You might go for a walk, or have a shower, or wash the dishes. It might take some practice at first, but you’ll get good at it after awhile.

Your first sentence is always there. Sometimes you just have to treat it with kid gloves.

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