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Forget What You Wrote
An English Major’s Unconventional Writing Tips
Time to get lit…erary!
If I were a professor I would grade on pun usage alone but sadly most professors aren’t as forward-thinking as me. Instead, what professors do care about is editing. Editing means reading over the 10 pages you word-vomited after you realized you spent most of your Sunday night re-watching a) Friends b) the Office or c) both. Editing may be daunting but doing so will ensure you don’t lose marks for silly mistakes like missing punctuation or forgetting to change your title from “Need Title for This ******* Essay!!!!!” to something a bit less honest.
While editing, students often struggle catching their mislakes. Did you notice the mistake in that last sentence? If you did, I am glad you are giving my writing the attention it deserves but if not that’s probably because your mind simply autocorrected it for you. This autocorrect ability is great for deriving meaning from the stimuli of the everyday world but not so great for playing punctuation patrol. While editing, you’ll face the moment when your brain goes into full autocorrect mode. Your brain knows what you’re trying to say, so it will derive that meaning from whatever it is you have written even if what you’ve written wouldn’t fully represent your ideas to an impartial brain (a.k.a. anyone else). This problem only gets worse the more times you read your writing as you become increasingly familiar with your work. So how do you trick your brain into forgetting what you wrote? Defamiliarize!
To defamiliarize means to “To make (something) seem strange or unfamiliar” (OED). Defamiliarizing yourself with your writing will enhance your mental alertness and help you avoid reverting to autocorrect mode. Here are some techniques that you can use to defamiliarize your work:
Change Document Elements
Use a Silly Font
Other than the font-that-must-not-be-named, the world is your oyster and perhaps Harlow Solid Italic is your pearl. Or Lucida Sans Typewriter or Papyrus or maybe just Calibri rather than Times New Roman. I would recommend a readable font so you don’t render yourself too unfamiliar with your work by turning it into a page of gibberish.
Change the Text Colour
This tip is like changing your font, just be careful not to do this.
Print Your Work Out
I’m sure you’ve heard someone swear by hard copy books rather than one of those doggone, newfangled book computers. (This may just be my grandpa before he throws a Kobo across the room.) Besides a general aversion to technological advancements, there is also merit to hard copy for improving concentration while you read. Printing a paper copy of your work gives you the benefit of defamilarization and improved concentration (probably because you can’t check if your Amazon order has shipped using a piece of paper).
If you have a limited access to a printer, have better ways to spend 25 cents, or want to save the trees, then another trick is to change devices. E-mail yourself your essay and read your work on your phone, tablet, Apple Watch (may not be the most practical choice but your call), or even just switch computers.
Read Your Work Out Loud (or get someone with a cute accent to)
This tip is self-explanatory. You should be getting people with cute accents to read everything out loud. However, if no one accentually gifted is around (tragic) then there is nothing quite like hearing a garbage sentence you’ve written come out of your own mouth. Often, I read my work out loud and question how a sentence/paragraph/essay could make so little sense. It’s better you have this realization yourself than have your professor think this while marking your essay with a big fat “F.”
Take a Break
You can give yourself some mental distance by spacing out your writing and editing work. This technique is difficult because you need to write in advance, yet simple because it involves doing anything besides writing your essay, which many of us are good at doing already. To clear your mind before you edit, you should give yourself a minimum of a few hours between writing and editing or ideally 24 hours if you have the time. This period away will give your brain the ability to block out the traumatizing experience of writing, so you can trick yourself into repeating this experience again. These techniques give you the mental distance required to become a ruthless editor extraordinaire, slashing comma splices left and right. Trust me, this ability will make you super cool. A major factor in good writing is not the ability to write the great American novel on the first try, but the patience to painstakingly turn your not-so-good writing into better writing. So, get defamiliarized and then get down and literary!
For more unconventional writing tips, check out Barbara’s other post: Do Not Use a Thesaurus.
Barbara Baker is a fourth-year English major; she can confirm that all it involves is answering increasingly difficult questions about Harry Potter. You can tell she is an English major because she used a semicolon. Was it unnecessary? Absolutely! A breakfast enthusiast and pasta connoisseur, her sole arm workout is holding up books while reading in bed.