Flying Blind

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

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:


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?

11 bolts from the blue:

DL Hammons said...

Great analogy JP! Loved it!

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...

Love it! I am proud to say I caught the double the but only because when you said read it I read it like ten times before scrolling down lol. Had I just seen it in passing I KNOW I would have overlooked the second The. ;o)

Wonderful tips! I never thought about the different fonts - good idea.

By the way this sounds like a fun class! ;o)

Visit My Kingdom Anytime

sarahjayne smythe said...

I always read my stuff along and catch all kinds of mistakes along the way. BTW, the class does sound wicked cool. :)

Eric W. Trant said...

Yuo're asobuletly crorect aoubt the mnid palynig tircks on us!

From Cambridge University:

Olny srmat poelpe can raed tihs.
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, t he olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rgh it pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs psas it on !!

- Eric

Lola Sharp said...

I love this post, JP. I love how you took something from your Navy training class on pilot error/human factors/SD and related it to writing and specifically to edits. AWESOME comparison!

I too, read it aloud and/or have someone else read it aloud to me (which is the best).
Also, going through it backward, from the last sentence through to the first, is particularly helpful in catching the Double The type of typos.

A wonderful post, my friend. :)

Have fun on day 2...getting wet!

Claire Dawn said...

Great post. For line edits, I scroll across with my finger. That way I notice each word seperately.

Pam Harris said...

Great post! And hey--you're in my neck of the woods! :)

Tara said...

Nice analogy :)

Before I even write the dialogue out, I have the conversation aloud with myself. I do read the entire book aloud as well. Helps in a big way.

Good luck today!

Donna Hole said...

I caught it; but I recognized the test for what it was. I miss a lot of things in my writing because I see what is supposed to be there. I'm a better writer in my head than on paper. I do read things aloud sometimes, but the most frequent catch is in the printed version. I don't know why I read better on hard copy than the monitor.

Glad you're having fun in your training. Excellent pilot story, and so easy to relate to writing.

Have a great day.


Jon Paul said...


Courtney--It was. Good to be back on flying-related duties for a change.

SJS--Yeah, it works pretty well, doesn't it?

Eric--Nicely illustrated, my friend. I am constantly fascinated by all these little brain tricks, and how it affects our reasoning and creative processes.

Lola--Thanks so kindly, Ma'am. Day 2 was a blast also.

Claire--I've heard of that one and I must try it. It makes sense.

Psm--Thanks! At least until tomorrow, then down to SA.

Tara--I used to do that while writing plays. We'd lay out a general topic for the conversation (based on the plot) and then just sit down and chat, recording as we went. Yielded some great stuff from time to time.

Donna--I have that too. I have these great long elegant arcs of sentences in my brain, but they don't end up on the page that way--so things like hard copy editing help me get back to the original vision.

Thank you all for honoring me with a comment. Have a great day!

Simon C. Larter said...

Excellent example, good sir. I read fast, so I confess I glossed right over the additional "the." With enough rereadings, I'll catch 98% of my original mistakes, but the process goes much faster with critique partners involved.

Plus, I'll NEVER send a story out without editing in hardcopy again. Did that recently, and the rejection was prompt, noting errors I'd certainly have found had I edited properly. Cue the mortification.

Great post, good sir.

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