The two-minute time machine

A few years ago, I had a running joke with one of my classes. I don't remember what brought it up in the first place, but the idea was simple:

Most people don't really want a time machine to take them back 10 years, or 100 years, or 1,000 years. We're interested in the past, and maybe it would be cool to meet somebody famous from the past. But the benefit, when you get down to it, can be pretty marginal. And the risks are giant. (Even some of the more obvious benefits can go poorly.)

What most of us would really love to have instead is a time machine that takes us back just a few minutes. When we say or do something really embarrassing, when we take a wrong turn or get into a car wreck, when we speak in anger and hurt someone's feelings, we'd really love to go back two minutes and have a do-over. Most of the time when it came up in class, it was when somebody (usually me, the teacher) said something silly, and the students would tease "don't you wish you had the two-minute time machine!"

Alas, the two-minute time machine is not real. When I say something embarrassing I can't just jump back in time and make it go away. But what is so cool, so magical even, is that if I write something embarrassing I often can go back and make it go away.

You know where this is going. This is about admission essays and revision. When it comes to our writing, we often think of revising and editing as a chore. We often give it very little time or attention. When I was training to become a teacher in the late '90s, one of my favorite instructors would joke "for students, the rough draft is what you write before spellcheck, and the final draft is how it is after spellcheck." What a waste! Instead of thinking of revision as a possibly-necessary evil, think of it as a miracle. You have a chance to go back in time to an earlier self-expression and make it better. You make your self-expression, and therefore your self, better with each pass. Nobody sees what you've done until you've taken yourself through the time machine a few times. Isn't that beautiful?!?!?

And it gets even better. Your time machine is not just reactive, but pro-active. When you understand ahead of time that you have a time machine, you're more willing to take risks and try out different things. If I had an actual two-minute time machine, then when I make presentations in front of a group, I'd try out several different openings to see which one works best. When I meet someone for the first time, I won't be as nervous to say what's on my mind or make that joke, because if it doesn't work I can go back and try something else. There's absolutely no good reason not to use the same strategy when you're writing, because you do have a time machine.

Whenever students or clients ask me how they should structure their essay--more narrative, or more expository? One in-depth example or a few examples with less detail? This idea or that idea?--I tell them to write them all. Write three or four different drafts trying out the different possibilities, and then see which one seems to be working best. You don't have to decide ahead of time which is going to work best and only write that one. You can start all of them, and then use your time machine to eliminate the ones that aren't as good. 

This idea of trying out possibilities knowing ahead of time they all won't work has all kinds of names, but I like "productive failure" or "effective failure." My friend Dr. Edward Burger, a math professor and university president, has a book with Michael Starbird called The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking. One of the elements is "Fail to Succeed." In that section, Burger and Starbird explain: "The typical attitude that mistakes should be avoided is patently wrong and has several detrimental consequences. The mind-set that mistakes are poisonous often freezes us into inaction. If we have the healthier attitude that failure is a potent teacher and a scheduled stop along the road to success, then we find ourselves liberated to move forward sooner, because mistakes are actions we definitely can take at any time. If you're stuck, a mistake can be just the thing to unstick you."

There's only one problem with the two-minute time machine. It still can't change literal time. You won't be able to take advantage of it if you wait too long to get started. When I tell students to write a draft of all the essays and see which ones work best, they usually don't like that advice. Sometimes it's because they're not as enthusiastic as I am about their time machine, but often it's because they don't have enough time to write that many drafts. They can't write three or four first drafts and choose which one to pursue, because they need to have the whole thing wrapped up in a few days, not a few weeks. If this is your situation, then what you have to do is still apply the same strategy to smaller portions. Instead of writing three or four essay drafts using different approaches, you can try several different versions of the key paragraphs. Or, even if you're really pressed for time, you can still try out a bunch of different first and last sentences. But even if you're in a hurry, the big idea is the same: try different ideas, and choose which is working best. Don't decide the best approach before you even get started, because that's limiting and carries a lot of risk if it turns out not to be so great. You have a time machine that will allow you to redo your mistakes and only push the good stuff into the future.


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