is the one-sentence through line.
Don’t spend days or weeks meandering, writing around in circles, not sure what the spine of your article, chapter or book is. What does it all hang on? And what can you hang onto as your go about writing?
This one sentence does the trick and I’m going to share with you how to write it.
I like to call it the End All Be All Sentence Of A Lifetime*, or EABASOAL* for short. Or you could call it your spine, or through-line. The asterisk stands for a footnote: “at least for now.”
So it’s the sentence of a lifetime at least for now. And it’s maybe the most useful thing to keep on track in academic writing.
Here’s how to do it– it’s going to take a little awareness of story and plot, but luckily we’ve all be exposed to that.
And just a word of warning: tread easily, lightly here. Don’t try to hard or try to get it perfect. It’s just a focusing exercise.
The Spine Story of Your Article, Chapter or Book in One Sentence:
It’s not a ton of work to come up with this one sentence, and it’s not always easy either, though it’s fine if it turns out to be very easy.
Here’s how you do it:
You are allowed one grammatical sentence
It contains the four elements below
You get 50 words max and that’s it, no matter how long your work is
Your Protagonist, your Main Aspirant Vision
In most cases your main aspirant in your chapter is your big idea or promise, and anything that is suggested by the word idea, such as a proposition, a political position, an opinion, something you are valuing or validating (that’s what it is in my example below) or perhaps even an intuition, or on the other end of the spectrum from intuition, a hypothesis or theory.
This is most likely an idea about some thing in the world (which might be writings about ideas themselves or people in the world or a phenomenon, etc.). It’s not necessarily your argument in its entirety, though you can make do with your argument, to fill in this position of “the aspirant.”
It’s something you want to say or some vision you have about something. It’s the main thing. You are aligned with it in some way. It’s what you care about.
As you may catch on as you read through the elements of an EABASOAL*, you might notice some dramatic theory here and can feel free to substitute “Your Main Aspirant Vision” with “Protagonist”
My protagonist, what I’m rooting for, in the book I am going to write is this:
Mysticism, devotion and surrender in meditation
What’s your Main Aspirant Vision? What are you aligned with, what do you care about? Write it out, you’ll use it somewhere at some point in your EABASOAL*.
In the case of my book, I can’t be very specific about my “protagonist” because I don’t have a particular argument that I can assemble in this one part of the sentence and I can’t be specific because it won’t cover everything unless I am vague in this way. I’m not actually writing a book on the general subject of mysticism, but this general statement covers what my message is really going to be about.
You may choose to have a more concrete and specific EABASOAL*
And in that case what occupies the aspirant vision component is still what you are aligned with and, in some case, validating or valuing or pressing forward with. (You are rooting for this thing).
It’s Opponent, the antogonist
Bam. Whack! Zam. Whammo!
Academic discourse usually has some element of dueling and fighting in it, or we may call it rational civilized repartee, or critique and debate, or whatever you want. We may even believe it’s all actually about exchanging affects, or we may be aspiring to something different than debates and deconstructions.
I know that I happen to be writing something that is not trying to be confrontational (despite what you will read below). The EABOSOAL* should have conflict, even if conflict does not typify the work.
While we might not actually agree that academic writing is about conflict primarily, still it is important to understand that critique is very prominent in the form and that opposing something is usually either subtle or prominent in our writing but rarely entirely absent.
The EABOSOAL* is just for your use and clarity and so it can, and maybe should, have a more stark conflict than the reality of the chapter as it will wind up being written.
On the other hand, getting clear about the opponent (yup, read “antagonist”) in your private revision process, which is all private and secrety in its privateness and secretyness, helps immensely with your sense of purpose and decisiveness and is not to be avoided.
And in this little sentence building exercise, your opponent idea may feel kind of like a villain twirling both ends of her mustachio, laughing “Mwah-ha-ha” rubbing his hands, which is very false-feeling because that’s like four hands and two genders.
But just go with it. Just let there be the opponent, no matter what.
So, what is in the world, or what ideas are out there,
that are most different or most in the way of realizing the possibility
that the Main Aspirant Vision could be seen or recognized?
For my case, the antagonist is:
Secular common sense assumptions rooted in self-improvement
Something like that is going to appear somewhere in my sentence.
Now, I’m not really against this secularism or self-improvement. I’m uncomfortable writing out that “villian.” It’s not my intention for this to be seen as a villain in my book. Now, it’s great if you feel totally comfortable with your written opponent. Good for you—you are going to have a decisive clear book for sure. But it’s not essential to be totally comfortable. Just do it. Write out your opponent.
The Conflict and Consequence between the two
What is the main crux of the problem, the incompatibility between the aspirant and its opponent?
While in a certain sense it might be obvious after defining the first two elements, aspirant and opponent, here we try to say a bit more about the nature of their conflict and the stakes. This is just further sharpening.
For my project, the conflict and its consequences:
The diversion of aims that secular self improvement brings to meditation and the obfuscation of meditation methods, missing out on so much
That means something to me but maybe not to you— so for this example just to let you in– I mean that there is a conflict (here in EABASOAL*-land, at least) between the “opposing” ways of meditation, that causes a confusion over how this body/mind works and what we really are, and that diverts attention from a worthy aim as well as make meditation instructions difficult to follow unnecessarily. I could say a lot more– That’s what my book is about. In fact I’m having an overwhelming feeling of wanting to explain to you right now what I mean here. That’s why I know this is indeed tapping into the spine of my book!
So anyways… that’s what I wrote up there means in my mind. Remember, this is my private sentence I’m working on here. It’s not my purpose to necessarily end up with a sentence I would ever utter in public.
And again, the conflict is not so simple in reality and I’m not really in a fight.
This is your opportunity to lay in some context. Some of us write in a way where mostly we are setting up context, or it feels that way, and some of us don’t seem to write about context so much, or it feels that way.
But for our purposes here it’s important to make a nod in the direction of setting.
This is probably not the most difficult part of this process.
The setting is the arena in which the conflict is happening.
It’s a kind of location.
Here are some setting-type words to get you started, that can prompt you to invoke the context where your conflict is happening:
In a world where…
In the literature on X…
In Russia (or Austin Texas, etc.), where…
And many more possibilities. For my example:
In popular cultures of mindfulness meditation…
That’s a horribly reifying gloss, but I’m not going to share this with anyone so I’m okay with it now
Irony or a Twist
Irony– Now there’s another word that’s been through the academic and literary ringer. As you may have noticed by now, the EABASOAL* is not designed to be without discomfort or awkwardness. So if you need another word from dramatic theory, you may just as effectively think of it as “the twist.”
As that master storyteller of children’s horror tales, R.L. Stine, has said, a book has only three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the twist.
What is strange or different about the way you think about the Aspirant, Opponent, Conflict and Setting coming together? Say some words that suggest that. What’s slightly unexpected?
Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to be unique. Just think what’s a little twist, double back, or irony, or simply: pointedness or poignancy.
Secular mindfulness depends on belief in non-existent, imagined entities
That’s not mind-shatteringly interesting nor is it original. It might not be true. BUT IT IS A TWIST in how things will play out in the conflict. I’m not going to beat myself up over this. It’s just good to have it now.
The fact is that if you boil down your manuscript in this way, there is every chance you are going to get some version, basically, of something that’s been said many times in the past. There’s a good chance of that, at least, since all the details and style is absent in your EABASOAL*. It’s just spine.
So there’s a good chance that even whatever you come up with as your irony or twist is not going to really move your EABASOAL* into the realm of originality. Nor should it.
What matters is that no one is really going to say what I’m going to say in the exact same way that I’m going to say it, nor with the same exact subject matter, once I’m actually writing.
What any of us are usually doing is just keeping a point of view alive, invigorating it with new life and relevance.
So here’s what I came up with as my End All Be All Sentence of a Lifetime, based on the elements I identified above, and at least for now:
In the current popular culture of the mindfulness movement, mysticism in meditation has been relegated to supernatural status, banishing devotion and surrender in the self-help service of an imagined scientific reality attributed to a self in need of help, where in fact that idea of self is, itself, actually the true obstacle to the happiness and freedom promised by meditation cultures.
So that’s the one I have right now. It’s misshapen. It’s inaccurate. It doesn’t exactly represent my view completely. But it sort of does. Good enough.
I can start writing my book now because I have a statement about what it is about, inside and argumentation context and an empirical context, and I have a position and a message.
Note this is not my elevator speech. This is not public. It’s private.
(Except when I reflect on the fact that I’m writing to you now).
I will change this and tweak this as I go.
And if you don’t tell anyone about this, no one will ever know where I started.
Again, I’m not going to berate myself over my lack of innovativeness. My EABAOSOL* is a common theme in religious discourses down the ages. It’s not unique. It doesn’t even sound particularly interesting to me in this form.
Moreover, the exercise here has certainly flattened my views, erased nuance, and has put me in more of a position of adversary and critic than I really am or intend to be.
This is only a writing exercise. If I took it to be real, actually my first reaction would be “Well I don’t want to be the latest jerk casting stones and aspersions with such arguments and positions.”
So, why write my book?
But I’m not dejected because I know what this sentence is supposed to do for me.
While this exercise in this example might make me feel, for a second, like more of a jerk than I aspire to be, that may be just the niche subject matter however (meditation). For the most part academic writing, as I mentioned, is expected to be adversarial in some way—it’s supposed to be about critique and debate.
Also I notice the ordering of the sentence—with putting the setting first—actually makes it seem like the book is about popular culture when it is just as much about devotion and surrender. I can rework it. That would be good. Rework your EABASOAL* early and often as long as you are relaxed and not straining!
But no matter what I might do, there is no denying this fact:
I wouldn’t want anyone to read the sentence.
Well at least I wouldn’t want anyone to read it as my actual argument.
The reason for it’s existing is so that I know everything that follows, everything in the book, must be connected in some way to the conflict in this sentence and the reason for the book existing: I have something to say that matters and I’m not wasting my reader’s time.
That’s the gold standard, the first standard, for what will be included in my manuscript.
And yet… there is lots of material I feel I want to write about in my manuscript that isn’t really mentioned or contained in these catch phrases, yet will be in the manuscript never the less.
As general as it is, it’s not a catch all.
It’s a spine that I can hang things on, at least for now.
Again– let me remind to not get lost in the weeds. I am working through this example and providing the aspirant, opponent, conflict, setting, and irony or twist as the five elements of the sentence of a lifetime. You can make your own elements.
My sentence turned out to be kind of abstract and general. It had to be. While writing it, in the back of my mind, I was trying to keep in mind all the material in the manuscript that corresponds with it, but some of it just didn’t make it into consideration.
This doesn’t mean all that material, that didn’t come to mind, is now going to be cut out of the manuscript.
But it does mean that eventually at the end of my revision, all my material WILL have to relate to something like my through-line sentence…
in some way…
… and in a way that eventually I can articulate easily and clearly,
And of course you can modify your sentence to fit your material. It works both ways. Your EABASOAL* doesn’t exist in a vacuum, although when you work on it you first, single it out as a discrete task and focus on it exclusively for a short time (30-45 min for a messy case, 5 minutes for someone who is already clear?)
Now Go write your sentence that captures the whole book, article, or chapter!
So whether your EABASOAL* feels like a life vest you can hold onto in a stormy sea, or it seems like an awkward prison cage, or a little of both, in either case once we’ve settled on a minimum viable sentence, it’s time to immediately move on to the next step.
But what is certain is that if you can with some clarity boil your manuscript down to one sentence, then you have awoken the most basic fundamental power for both keeping your connection with the reader and keeping your material together harmoniously.
You have a standard by which to judge if you are on message.
Now to create your End All Be All Sentence of a Lifetime (for now), a tiny bit of tortured reflection here is okay, but more than a tiny bit is not great, and a lot is bad. In writing your EABASOAL* you may need to put extra emphasis on the asterisk, on
“at least for now.”
In other words, this should be easy and simple. So make it easy and simple as best you can.
However, remember to not get lost in the weeds. Just make it simple, general, and contain the elements of story conflict.
Again, the best way to write an EABASOAL* is to write one before you ever start writing your manuscript. I would tell all writers to have always have a working title, focus sentence, and summary of your work before you write, during writing, and after writing. This keeps you on track while you are writing and underlies your decision making in sometimes mysterious ways.
Remember—REMEMBER!!—it’s a chunk of clay. It’s may be misshapen, awkward—it may look ugly and stupid. That doesn’t matter. We just want it to be a chunk. It’s perfectly fine if your chunk goes ka-chunk, ka-chunk.
You have your compass, you have your guide, and most importantly you’ve gone through the mental motions of reducing and focusing your work, and those have lasting effects on your writing mind.
What to do Next:
If you are looking for next steps, and writing coaches and peer writers to keep you on track and not avoiding, while also keeping your private sentences to yourself, then join the Academic Writing Bootcamp to learn how to get your work finished and to actually finish it together with others supporting you.