In my writing seminar last semester, At Home in America, our professor asked each of us to compile a list of what she calls personal pitfalls: mistakes you find yourself repeatedly making in your prose. Intrigued, I began to meander back into each cluster of words, stepping carefully from subject to clause, semicolon to period. Pitfalls suddenly emerged out of nowhere, like those elms in your college courtyard that you just spotted yesterday. Curious how they’d remained invisible throughout two and a half years’ worth of walks to breakfast.
As my list of personal pitfalls grew (for example, #9: Too many prepositional phrases in one sentence), I began collecting a parallel list on stray scraps of paper and the Notes app on my iPhone. This sister list gathered together subtle yet notable blunders I found myself making throughout my day (ex. #5: Known to leave hair on the wall of the shower). Each week I shook both my paragraphs and my daily ploddings through a sieve, sifting out the petty words and irksome shortcomings. The items on my first list slowly piled up: #8: Using adjectives to describe qualities already inherent in the nouns being described (e.g. “tiny kernels”). #15: Applying multiple metaphors to the same object. #18: Often showing, then still proceeding to tell.
Meanwhile, my second list began to mushroom.
#4: I open Facebook on my iPhone before checking the news … or even (god forbid) my email. #7: I am hypersensitive to chewing noises. I think I suffer from undiagnosed misophonia, a selective sound sensitivity syndrome. #12: I judge people far too quickly, and for far too many things (e.g. if it’s nice out and he’s running on the treadmill, maybe he’s just allergic to sunlight?) I also find myself judging people for habits of which I am regularly guilty (e.g. texting while walking; ice cream before noon). #13: When I see free food (which, at Yale, is frequent), I shovel it into my mouth as though I have no way of knowing the next time Oog will clobber a lame bison to provide me my week’s worth of calories. #17: On occasion I will talk to a suitemate while I am showering, only to realize when I grab my bathrobe and step out of the stall that he has already left the bathroom. This puts my listening abilities highly into question.
When interrogated cold turkey, it’s difficult to explain what you want to improve in your writing. People will say: I need to be more creative, or I feel like I spend too much time on my essays. Even more difficult, I think, is to see what you want to improve in your day-to-day interactions. When I began my second list of personal pitfalls, I started to pick up on individual foibles that I’d consistently overlooked. It was clear, too, that if I didn’t write these down right as I noticed them, I wouldn’t be capable of recalling them — much less working on them — later.
When I asked a few friends what they considered their own “personal pitfalls,” I encountered a smattering of predictable responses: I procrastinate too much; I’m bad at making decisions; I don’t take enough positive risks. Yalies, I’ve found, can be admirably self-critical, but in our often-grandiose ambitions, we tend to overlook our own nickel-and-dime defects — punctuality, remembering birthdays, shower etiquette. It’s good to see the big, glaring things. But in assembling my pitfalls, I stumbled upon the potential in improving the minute. I’ve realized that for me, it is far easier to slowly chip away at specific pitfalls than to take a sledgehammer to the mighty, amorphous self in need of improvement.
At times, it is impossible to not obsess over the big, ponderous things: transcripts, LSAT scores, break-ups, job interviews. The interrogator from McKinsey, crisply dressed and well coiffed, might not, perhaps, be impressed if I were to claim that I always clean my hair from the shower stall.
So go ahead, obsess about yourself. But do it for yourself — improving your writing not for publication, but for you to know that each time it’s a little bit better. Improve yourself, not for the rewards you receive but for the fact that one day your suitemates will tell their children that you never failed to wipe your hair from the shower stall.
Tao Tao Holmes is a junior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .