Benefits of Highlighters

One of the biggest problems with writing–as silly as this may sound–is that we are always ourselves. If I write a sentence, and I read that sentence later, I will probably remember why I wrote that sentence, what I was thinking, why I thought it should be just there, and all of the other stuff that was floating in my head as I put the words on the page. Our readers, of course, do not have this benefit–and so, quite often, might wonder why I mention that my favorite Sesame Street character is Snuffleupagus in my essay about global warming. It might make perfect sense to me, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to anyone else.

Because of this, some of the best tools for revising our writing are those that allow us to take a different kind of look at our writing–to approach it from the outside, as it were, as a reader instead of as a writer. Looking at our writing from the outside is a hard thing to do, but usually all it takes is a little trick to change our perspective. One of my favorite tricks for this is the use of highlighters.

Highlighters can show us all kinds of stuff about how our writing is working, depending on how we use them. In short, what highlighters do is offer us an easy visual way of distinguishing different kinds of information. By using highlighters to visualize how our papers are working, we can get a clear picture of what’s going on in our writing, and what we want to change in it.

What you see when you highlight your paper depends, of course, on what you highlight. You can do this with any kind of question you have about your writing, but I’ll give you three different ways of using highlighters to make choices about how to revise a paper.

They Say/I Say

A lot of English instructors use Gerald Graff’s fantastic book They Say/I Say to teach students how to work with sources. Whether you’ve read the book or not, the title is still a neat, simple way to think about the way we work with sources. In most cases, when we’re writing, we should be trying to balance the ideas of others (what “they say”) with our own ideas, opinions, and analysis (what “I say”). Highlighters give us an easy way to see how that balance shakes out in a paper. Here’s an example from an old paper of mine about Sandra Cisneros’s book The House on Mango Street.. If you click the “Highlight!” button below the quotation, you’ll see how highlighting the “they say” portion in green and the “I say” portion in blue shows a good balance between the two colors.

The first thing we are told about Marin is that “she lives with Louie’s family because her own family is in Puerto Rico” (Cisneros 23). Before we learn anything about her character or personality, we are told that Marin is out of place: though she lives on Mango Street, her home is in Puerto Rico. Shortly thereafter, we are told that Marin is trapped: “she can’t come out—gotta baby-sit with Louie’s sisters—but she stands in the doorway a lot” (23-24). Thus, in Marin, Cisneros immediately pairs displacement and female subservience: it is the fact that she is not at home that forces Marin into a traditional female role.

If you do this, and see a lot of green and very little blue, then your paper is mostly summary. For some assignments, this is fine; for most papers, though, your instructors will want to hear your opinion as well. If you see a lot of blue and very little green, this means the paper is mostly your own opinion. Again, for some assignments, this is fine, but for most, your instructors will want you to support your ideas with evidence, and to engage with the ideas of others.

Integrating Sources

On a similar note, highlighters can help you look at how you’re using the sources you have. Here’s another example from an old paper on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o's book Devil on the Cross. (Can you tell I was a literature major?) In this example, I’m highlighting my own opinions in green, my evidence from my source in blue, and my analysis in yellow. This is an easy way of visualizing whether you are making connections between your ideas and your sources’ ideas.

The dream itself provides the titular metaphor for the book. The Devil himself, in the dream, is European, finally having been crucified by the masses he had oppressed. When he dies, he is carried away in three days by a group of black men in suits (13-14, 139). The meaning of the metaphor is clear: Ngũgĩ is claiming that after Independence, the supposedly “nationalist” bourgeoisie simply picked up where the Europeans left off—precisely as Fanon described. Thus, the meeting in the cave of the “modern thieves and robbers” is the personification of that same metaphor. The focusing of the nationalist thieves and robbers on maintaining profitable relations with Europe signifies the fact that Kenya, really, is still a colonized nation—neocolonial, rather than postcolonial. The devil on the cross still exerts his influence on Kenya.

In this example, the paragraph begins with a claim, introduces evidence to support the claim, analyzes that evidence, and then articulates that claim more clearly. Highlighting opinion, evidence, and analysis makes it easy to make sure that we’re doing all three of those things. It’s really easy to let a paragraph in a paper be taken over by opinion or fact, or to have a great balance of the two, but nothing to connect them. This strategy helps you visualize the way you’re working with your sources.


The last way of using highlighters I’ll mention is to help organize your paper. Go through your paper and highlight each new idea in a different color. When you encounter an idea you’ve seen before, use the color you started with. This makes it really easy to see how you move from idea to idea in a paper. Here’s an example I am making up on the spot, to save you from reading more literary criticism.

I am extremely fond of pie. I like it because it is an excellent way to ensure that you’re getting enough fruit. Unlike cake, it works for any occasion. You don’t have to wait for someone’s birthday to eat it. There are different kinds of pie for every season of the year. And if fruits are rich in antioxidants and good for you, then it must follow that pie is, too!

In this short example, by highlighting the different ideas in different colors, it becomes pretty easy to see that I move on to a new idea (the value of pie as an anytime dessert), and then wander back to my starting point (that pie is a great way to get the benefits of fruit). This is kind of an exaggerated example, but you can see how this might help you identify when you have too many ideas in one paragraph, when you’re jumping back and forth among ideas, and when your ideas are all over the place.

Who Knows What Else

Because this technique just helps you visualize how your paper is working, you can use it in as many ways as you can think of. It’s a simple strategy with almost endless value. Go! Highlight something exciting right now!

Last Updated: 3/4/2015 8:18 AM