One Sentence and One Sentence Only

This post is a rewrite of an earlier post, but it is worth writing about it again, for two reasons.

First, it is start of undergrad thesis time at the Gokhale Institute. And second, the point of this post helps people think better, which is always and everywhere a good idea.

What is the post about? It is about being able to describe the point of your work in one short sentence. No conjunctions, no punctuation. In one short simple sentence, tell me what you are up to.

What work? Anything! It could be (ahem) a blog post, or an essay, or an undergraduate thesis, or a PhD thesis, or a movie.

Can you summarize it for me in one sentence?

If you can, you are clear about what you want to do in your work. If you can’t, your own thinking about your work isn’t clear enough.

Try it. It is surprisingly difficult to do, even for a blog post.

How would I summarize this blog post – the one you are reading right now – in one sentence?

Learn the art of summarizing your entire work in one short sentence.

If you do decide to do this, you will very quickly realize that it is torture. You will rebel and revolt and say it is not possible. Imagine me with an insufferably smug look on my face, please. And now imagine me telling you that you must do it.

If, after a long time, you come to me and show me your sentence, but then tell me that this isn’t fair, you really need to tell me more, I will graciously and generously let you write an additional four sentences. These now become the sections in your work.

Now describe each section in one sentence.

Now expand each of these four sentences into four other sentences. These now become the subsections of each section.

And so on.

Particularly in the case of academic work, there is an additional tweak that may prove to be useful.

Answer the three whats.

  1. What specific topic are you writing about?
    Whatever your answer, I will ask if you can make it more specific than that. I will ask you this at least thrice. Whatever your answer at the third time of asking might become the topic you wish to research. But as a thumb rule, remember: whatever your topic, it is too broad to be amenable to serious analysis.
  2. What geography?
    Are you analyzing your topic for a specific geography? Could be a locality, a village, a town, a city, a district. Maybe a state. Just about maybe a country, but you’re making me nervous now. If we’re talking continents or the entire world, I congratulate you, but no way are you getting done anytime soon. But as a thumb rule, remember: whatever your choice of geography, it is too broad to be amenable to serious analysis.
  3. What time period?
    Are you analyzing the entire time period for which you have data available? Or only a specific interval? If so, which one? Why? But as a thumb rule, remember: whatever your choice of time period, it is too broad to be amenable to serious analysis.

Armed with your one sentence framework, and with clear answers to the three whats, you will struggle to do your work. Work just is that hard, now what to do.

But without these tricks, you will almost certainly struggle even more.

All the best!

Here’s the old blogpost, and here’s a wonderful link from it.