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Flying Blind

At the moment, I’m attending the first session of a two day aviation water survival course in Norfolk, Virginia.  Today was the classroom work; tomorrow we get to bag some pool  time and ride the helo dunker, among other events (Youtube video at the link).  It’s actually pretty fun.

In class this morning, we learned about human factors.  What are human factors, you say?  I’m glad you asked.

It turns out that most aviation mishaps do not result from a mechanical malfunction or act of god, like bad weather.  The most likely cause of an accident, by a wide margin, is pilot error.  Pilot error occurs when the pilot loses situation awareness, or fails to perceive his environment properly.  Most of these problems are lumped together broadly under the heading of spatial disorientation, or SD (gotta love those acronyms!).

A key component of SD is what a pilot thinks about what he sees.  His brain’s interpretations of the incoming data, whether it be visual, aural, or through some other channel, can affect his understanding of his surroundings, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Like a blind spot, a pilot’s opinions can actually cause him to miss key information or objects because his brain has convinced him they aren’t there.

I think writers can suffer from the same problem.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s do a test then, shall we?  I want you to read the following phrase:

PARIS
IN THE
THE SPRING

Done?  Good.  Now store those words away for a moment and let’s have some fun!

I learned this trick in my college Psych class, but they used a similar test this morning.  You see, what you just read doesn’t actually say what you think it says.  WAIT!  Don’t go back and read it again until I explain.

Reportedly, about 90% of the normal population will fail this test, because of how our brains work.  Since you are a bunch of writers who do a lot of editing, I’d expect the numbers to be lower–say half–but I still stand by my claim.  At least 50% of you think the above phrase says something different than it actually says.

OK.  I’ll let you in on the secret.  Read it again.  It says: “Paris in the *THE* spring.”  Yep.  Missed it, didn’t you?

You see, your brain is hardwired with all these rules you don’t know are there.  Since the word “the” never comes right after another “the”, your brain skips right over it without telling you.  A truer illustration of an honest-to-goodness blind spot, I’ve never seen.

So what does this mean for us writers?  It means we probably have tons of these little rules infecting our prose because our brain skips over the blemishes without telling us.  The trick is to develop techniques to see into these blind spots.  Here are three that work for me:

  • Read my prose out loud.  Somehow the act of reading it tickles a different part of the brain and I hear phrase problems as well as other things that I don’t discover when reviewing silently.
  • Print and review a hardcopy.  The words on paper appear differently than they do on screen.  They’re laid out in a different way.  The experience of holding the page in my hand, the physicality of it as opposed to reading from the screen is different.  These distinctions help me to illuminate blind spot areas also.
  • Change font type and size.  This can also jar things loose.  In fact, sometimes I write my drafts in one font, then edit in another. 

These all work by tricking your brain into looking at your fiction in different ways.  And of course, the help of another brain (read beta reader or critique partner) brings a ton to the table as well.

What about you?  Do you have blind spots?  What do you do to keep your brain from playing tricks on you?