Students tell me they write “I think” to let the reader know they are not so egotistical as to equate their opinions with fact. Perhaps that’s their intention. But to the reader, that “I think” sounds less like modesty and more like uncertainty, especially to the reader who understands that what people write down is most often what they think and therefore doesn’t expect to see the writer point that out.
Following “I think [whatever]” with “I say this because” begins to seem like wheel-spinning while the writer actually does try to think. There are just too many words there.
I do like the fact that my student thinks every story is different. We spend time in class looking at stories (or poems) that share settings, or themes, or subjects, and discussing the details that make them different; after all, I say, all of literature can be boiled down to some three basic story lines; there must be some reason writers keep writing more. So here, my student is telling me that she has taken into her own set of thoughts the proposition that the differences we’ve been looking at from time to time all semester actually exist. This is gratifying. At exam time, the professor is grateful to see anything familiar show up on the test.
You know I’ve been teasing you with the ending of the second sentence. All right; here’s the entire utterance:
“I think every story is different. I say this because no story is the same.”
That’s a damned fine reason to say it.
Actually, “no story is the same” is a disconcerting thought. Had my student gone on to discuss the relationship between the reader and the story, it might have led to a thoughtful paragraph or two. After all, every reader has experienced the phenomenon of rereading a favorite book after some time has elapsed and finding that the book has changed: the story has wider or deeper implications; the “hero” seems to have acquired flaws; something funny now seems sad (or vice versa); more experience on the part of the reader has revealed a whole new meaning in a phrase, or reference, or scene. Those of us who like to talk about books with friends also know that no story is the same to all readers. Her first sentence, then, would come to mean that every story is different from itself at every reading, or to every reader.
But alas, my student wasn’t taking that philosophical, or reader-response, road. She was about to discuss three stories (as the essay question demanded) that were different from each other. She meant, then, “No two stories are the same,” or maybe “no three stories are the same.” But she has written that no one story is the same, and that must give one pause, although for her it was evidently what enabled her to move forward.
Long ago a professor of mine noted on a paper that I “spent too much time in throat-clearing.” I think this is a good way of describing those first sentences, or transitional sentences, where the writer can be seen to avoid committing herself to a point while she tries to figure out what the point actually is going to be, or gets ready to force a concept into actual words. I make this comment to my own students. (I would also allude to Art Carney as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners and the way he would repeatedly shoot his cuffs and shake his fingers in preparation for signing his name to things—master of suspense!—but I know this cultural reference will not resonate with today’s students.)
What my student was doing here was throat-clearing, or cuff-shooting, not yet saying anything. What she produced is yet again one of those masterpieces of circular (appropriately, for wheel-spinning) or self-defining statement that leaves the professor sighing, in wonder and despair, “True. True.”