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Fresh eyes and coffee stains

Good briefwriters have long known that, to find out whether a brief works, they need to have it looked at by a "fresh set of eyes": someone unfamiliar with the case. In his book, Expectations, George Gopen describes why that's so:

In attempting [to revise your own prose], your mind plays a trick on you. When you revisit a sentence you have written in order to judge whether it needs revision, you think the following is happening:

You see these words.

You know the meanings of each of these words.

When you put these words with those meanings into this syntactical structure, the meaning of the whole is X.

Since X is what you intended to convey, you judge the sentence to be fine.

You move on.

What is actually happening is the following:

You see these words.

You remember those words.

Those are the words you summoned when you were trying to articulate X.

Mere association. Since those were the words you chose when you were trying to convey X, naturally they will remind you of X when you reencounter them. The question remains whether those words will communicate X to most of your readers.

Gopen carries the idea to extreme. Suppose you're eating breakfast while reading what you wrote last night. You think of a brilliant idea, and at the same time spill your coffee, staining a corner of the page. From then on, you'll associate the coffee stain with the brilliant idea. The problem is that no one else who sees the coffee stain will make the same association. Gopen refers to this associational trap as the "coffee stain problem."

Gopen's purpose is to encourage writers to analyze their writing structurally—an objective task that, done properly, should be immune from the coffee-stain problem. But the coffee-stain problem is also a good reason why it's a good idea to get the writing reviewed by someone else, someone with a fresh set of eyes, who won't be prone to the mental associations imprinted on the brain through the writing process.


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