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Exercise—Errors and Insights

Writing exercise.

In Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, the psychologist Gary Klein suggests that two things are required to improve performance: reducing errors and increasing insights. He offers the following equation as a helpful visual.

Performance improvements = errors + insights

Klein’s book doesn’t specifically link this equation to performance improvements in writing and editing, but its general framework seems to apply, as does his concern that sometimes people focus too much on reducing errors and too little on increasing insights. “We tend to look for ways to eliminate errors,” he explains. “That’s the down arrow. . . . But when we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights. Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes.”

Anyone hoping to become a better writer and editor might do well to heed Klein’s advice and reserve time not just for spotting errors but also for accumulating insights. Eliminating mistakes will only get us so far. To really excel, we need to develop some insights—a new, more advanced set of compositional skills, strategies, and intuitions. The sections below are designed to help you do that, while also maintaining the still crucial task of reflecting on and learning from persistent errors.

ERRORS

Think about things you have written in the past year, whether for a client, a judge, a colleague, or any other audience. What are some of the most common errors you make?

  • Do you have trouble with commas?
  • Do you struggle with transitions?
  • Do you overload your sentences with unnecessary words?
  • Are your professional emails too informal?
  • Are your personal emails too stuffy?
  • And how about the time you give yourself to edit: do you finish drafts when you say you will, or are you constantly missing out on chances to calmly and carefully raise the quality of your work?

Make a list of three to five of your most common errors and keep it in a place that you can both easily access and regularly add to. A small journal or diary will work well. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It just needs to be something you can consistently use to collect and evaluate the things you most need to improve.

I recommend you divide your errors into two categories: (1) Mechanics and (2) Process.

  • The Mechanics Category should be filled with errors like being too wordy or improperly using semi-colons.
  • The Process Category should be filled with errors like failing to protect yourself from interruptions when writing or not reading your work out loud before submitting it.

To help you generate your list, consider doing at least two of the short tasks below.

(1) Read Top Twenty Errors in Undergraduate Writing by the Hume Center at Stanford University. Based on research by Andrea and Karen Lunsford, the collection can be useful even if you graduated from college many, many years ago.

(2) Ask one of your current supervisors or peers for one or two things they would like to see less of in the written material you submit.

(3) Ask one of your current supervisors or peers for one or two things they would like to see more of in the written material you submit.

(4) Take a look at The Habits of Highly Productive Writers by Rachel Toor (The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 2014). Which of these don’t you do?

(5) Review three or four pieces you’ve written in the past year. These can be briefs, business memos, contracts, blog posts, important emails—anything, really. But try to find at least two on which you have received feedback. What errors stand out? What did people consistently suggest you change?

INSIGHTS

In a separate section of your journal or diary, start writing down some insights. Like with your errors, shoot for three to five. These can be pithy observations you’ve gathered from others. They can be individual concepts or principles you’ve been taught by former teachers. They can even be ideas you’ve come up with yourself—about structure, about word choice, about anything related to writing, including where and when you seem to produce your best work.

To the extent that your Errors List may sound like warnings and admonitions—“Careful about comma splices”; “Don’t overuse dashes”—your Insights List should sound more like epiphanies. Here’s one from Brooks Landon, who has taught creative writing for many years at the University of Iowa.

Bad sentences are often long, but long sentences aren’t necessarily bad.

Here’s another, by Verlyn Klinkenborg, the author of the delightfully quirky book Several Short Sentences About Writing and a former member of the editorial board at the New York Times.

Sit back from the keyboard or notepad.

Sit back, and continue to think.

That’s where the writing gets done.

Finally, here’s a third, by ZZ Packer. Her book Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award in 2000 and also selected by John Updike for the official book club of the Today Show.

The big issue was cutting. I finally cut as much as I could, about a fourth of the story, and actually liked it. 

Other good places to look include:

  1. A list of Zadie Smith’s Rules for Writers published in The Guardian 2010 .
  2. A set of How I Write essays published in Scribes Journal for Legal Writing in 1993. The collection includes pieces by Judge Richard Posner, Judge Patricia Wald, Judge Edith Jones, Judge Tom Gee, Professor Lawrence Friedman, and Professor (and now Senator) Elizabeth Warren.
  3. Your notes from the best writing course you took.
  4. A friend’s notes from the best writing course they took. (Maybe your friend took a different writing course than you did or maybe they just took different notes. Either way, the additional perspective could lead to some helpful insights.)
  5. A post called Timeless Advice on Writing created by Maria Popova on brainpickings.org. The advice comes from writers as different as Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, Isabel Allende, Michael Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, E.B. White, Susan Sontag, George Orwell, and Jorge Luis Borges.

The nice thing about writing is that you are not the first to do it. Plenty of people have taken on the enterprise, and many have left useful tips and techniques to try. An insight can be as simple as discovering that something somebody else does also works well for you.

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