What I’m Trying to Say is This

I once wrote a paper for a high school English class that was returned to me with a piece of feedback that I’ve never forgotten: be careful using the word “this,” and never end a sentence with it. The teacher explained to me that “this” is often used to replace a more clearly formed and deeply developed—but harder to find—thought or phrase. We have a tendency to use words and phrases like “this,” “et cetera” and “and so on,” she warned, instead of offering concrete ideas and examples.

It’s ironic, then, that the best piece of writing (and speaking and thinking, for that matter!) advice that I’ve received in my adult life incorporates a thought ending with “this.” 

The advice came to me from a friend when I was lamenting to him that I often get stuck in my head when preparing a talk, writing an article, planning a lesson, or even just having a difficult conversation with a friend or family member. My thoughts go in a thousand different directions and it is hard to narrow them down into a few articulate ideas and points. He told me that anytime he finds himself in the “thoughts-in-a-thousand-directions” swirl, he takes a blank sheet of paper and writes across it, in big letters:

  • What I’m Trying To Say is This:

  • It’s Important Because of This:

Somehow, those statements nudge him to sift through the enormous pile of thoughts and pull out his main idea. Armed with a clear idea, he’s able to systematically sort through the thousand other thoughts, incorporating some and discarding many. I’ve tried my friend’s technique and have found it extremely useful in my thinking, writing and conversing. I think it’s helpful for a few different reasons.

First, likely because of its odd and imperfect phrasing (it breaks the “never end with this” rule!”), it’s a non-intimidating exercise. If I were to instead write at the top of the page “Thesis statement:” I doubt that I would have the same results. I get overwhelmed just thinking the words “thesis statement.” By being non-intimidating, the exercise enables me to get started.

Secondly, the answers to the two questions create a roadmap. If I know what I’m trying to say, all I have to do is say it. This may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how often I find myself spinning my wheels because I don’t actually know where I’m trying to go. As soon as I have a sense of direction, I can move forward. 

Finally, the exercise points out that it’s not enough to have something to say; you have to have a reason for saying it. Without the reason, our writing/thinking/conversing will likely lose its power. This exercise forces me to articulate my main idea and gets me to think about the reason why my idea matters to me, and why it should matter to others. 

Teresa lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church and dabbles in hospital chaplaincy. She has a BA in English, a Master’s in Divinity, and a passion for thinking about the intersection of spirituality, self-improvement, and well-being. Her perfect day includes slowly savoring a morning cup of coffee, reading for work and for fun, and receiving snail mail.