May 17th, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

Another way to generate text #2: “backmasking” (now with bonus Batman/Beatles content)

As I mentioned in my last post (“The Spell Check Technique”), I’ve played around with more than a few means for generating text. Another one that I used when writing Giant Slugs is a trick that I somewhat jokingly called “backmasking.” Here’s how it works:

  1. Write a sentence or the start of a sentence.

  1. Reverse it.
  2. Then “write through” the result, and use that to complete the sentence.

For instance:

  • Start of sentence: I don’t like visiting my dentist because…
  • Reversed (I used this site): …esuaceb tsitned ym gnitisiv ekil t’nod I

Because the reversed text can be somewhat daunting to look at (not to mention nonsensical), I use it more to improvise, rather than as literally received:

  • esuaceb > He’s a suave celeb
  • tsitned > in tinted designer frames
  • ym > YM magazine
  • gnitisiv > sensitive gums
  • ekil > are killing me
  • t’nod I > tonight I can’t nod off

I then play around with that; hence:

I don’t like visiting my dentist because he’s a suave celeb in tinted designer frames, popular in the pages of YM (which is all that he keeps in his office). Now my sensitive gums are killing me tonight, and I can’t nod off.

Me, I rather like “open-ended” techniques such as this one, which suggest new directions the writing can take, but that aren’t completely formulaic (i.e., producing only one result). Rather than the above, the reversed text could have generated something entirely different:

  • esuaceb > he’s as acerbic as suede
  • tsitned > tsar’s needling
  • ym > why him?
  • gnitisiv > g’nite I sign
  • ekil > cheekily
  • t’nod I > tea Thai noodle


I don’t like my dentist because he’s as acerbic as suede (i.e., not very acerbic), and I prefer a tsar’s needling wit from anyone who would needle me. So why him? Thus, “g’nite” I signed, and cheekily biked to a Thai noodle house to drink tea.

I won’t claim that either of these finished sentences are exceptional, but they are sentences that I could never have written straight out of my brain, without the assistance of this rather simple method. It’s a good way to break out of writer’s block, or to explore some new directions your writing can take. And of course you’re free to write a few such sentences, then combine the results. So, while I may not want to keep this exact wording, or even these actual sentences, I at least now have the idea of a suave, vain, yet witless dentist who’s being abandoned by a narrator that intends to drown his or her dental misery in spicy southeast Asian cuisine. It’s a long, long way from Clare to here.

Another thing I like about this method is that the more strictly you employ it, the more you keep using the same letters and letter combinations, which provides some symmetry to the sentence—near or even total palindromic symmetry.

Of course, that’s also the technique’s downside. Words will always produce the same results when reversed—”my” will always be “ym,” so you’ll always have “YM Magazine” suggesting itself to you. (You might also be unable to see it as anything other than “my” backward.) One solution here is to add in the “stripping” and “chunking” steps from the Spell Check Technique. Doing this gives you a new way to view the backward text, pushing you toward different conclusions:

  • Start of sentence: I don’t like visiting my dentist because…
  • Reversed: …esuaceb tsitned ym gnitisiv ekil t’nod I
  • Stripped: esuacebtsitnedymgnitisivekiltnodI
  • Broken into 5-letter chunks: esuac ebtsi tnedy mgnit isive kiltn odI

Now reading/writing through it yields:

  • esuac > sauce
  • ebtsi > Etsy
  • tnedy > trendy
  • mgnit > MGMT
  • isive > massive
  • kiltn > kitten quilts
  • odI > Odie


I don’t like visiting my dentist because he won’t share the sauce (Etsy? trendy bands like MGMT?) of his massive kitten quilts, making me feel like an Odie.

There are so many possibilities hidden inside such mundane words!

… Of course, you can also just totally integrate this technique with the spell speck one, and run spell check on the chunks. Doing that yields:

  • esuac > sumac
  • ebtsi > bets
  • tnedy > teddy
  • mgnit > magnet
  • isive > sieve
  • kiltn > kilt
  • odI > ode


I don’t like visiting my dentist because whenever he puts me under he hands me a teddy stuffed with sumac, and places small bets on the side with the hygienist while drilling my molars—plus he’s a terrible sieve with my secrets—and yet the fact that he wears a kilt and composes odes to the benefits of brushing yank me back to him like magnets …


If you’re feeling especially clever, you can use this technique to do actual backmasking—that is, you can encode backward messages into the texts you write:

  • Start sentence: Paul is dead.
  • Reversed: daed si luaP

Written through:

Daedalus sips Luapula. Mirandaed mafiosi luap. Logodaedaly assists bluecaps.

… Is it art? I have no idea. (I assure you it’s actual English—albeit the awkward English that often arises from the employment of strict constraints.) More importantly, it’s fun, and certainly a good way to learn new words!

A few comments here: Since I was introducing new letters, I decided to keep those additions systematic (first at the start of each reversed word, then at the end, then surrounding). Patterns indicate intention. Repeating the hidden string also helps, and even makes perfect sense, since alleged backmasked messages were always repeated (again, patterns indicate…).

OK, go nuts & enjoy!

Update 1: There’s been some commenting on the Batman image above. Yes, it’s taken from a real issue; it’s the cover of Batman #222, June 1970. The art is by the brilliant Neal Adams, whom many believe to be the greatest comics artist of the 70s. (The story itself, inside, was drawn by Irv Novick and the recently deceased Dick Giordano; it was written by Frank Robbins, probably based on an idea by Julius Schwartz.) You can read more about that particular issue here, here, and here. As that latter site says:

During this period, DC Comics was desperately attempting to court the so-called “youth” market, the comic-reading segment of which usually ignored DC’s product in favor of Marvel’s hipper approach to its material. Although it’s doubtful if editor Julius Schwartz, Frank Robbins or Irv Novick (all well into middle age) were Beatle fans – or even “got” the Beatles at all – but apparently, they were counting on these pseudo-Beatles to lure young readers away from their competition.

For more about this time and place in pop culture history, you might check out an article I wrote about Batman in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, being the seventh installment in an eight-part analysis I did of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986). (Part 1 and Part 2 examine Miller’s career before that comic; Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 perform a close reading of its four issues, Part 7 provides more context for TDKR in Batman’s history, and Part 8 looks at Miller’s later career.)

I love comics almost as much as I love generating text!

Update 2: Paul McCartney later wrote a song called “222.” Coincidence? Or … conspiracy?

Update 3: Related posts:

Update 4: Other related posts:

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  1. Anonymous

      not to take away from yr cool text technique but i’m kinda stuck on that batman frame and how masterful the composition is. look how much content/information is crammed in there.

  2. A D Jameson

      Thanks! I added a bit more to the post, at the end, explaining where it came from. Neal Adams is one of my all-time favorite comics artists!

  3. Bill Hsu

      Hey Adam, really enjoyed this one, and the earlier post on spellchecking.

      Do you know Paul Curran? He used to (and may still) work with automatic translators, going through multiple languages to mistranslate a text and manipulate the result. He described the process online somewhere; not sure I can find it anymore. (Paul, are you reading this?) But here’s his blog:


  4. A D Jameson

      Thanks, Bill! No, I’m afraid I don’t know Paul Curran. But I’d be interested in learning more.

      I played around with translators some in the late 90s—at the time I was working as a technical writer, writing user manuals for machine translation—but I never found a way of getting from them results I really liked. (That said, one of my first publications was a piece that used auto-translating.) So I’d be curious to read about what others have done with them.

      Cheers, Adam

  5. iacus

      Attempt #1: How many years has it been since the needles bloomed in time for the sad holy men to scrape off the aromatic entrails, young, yet nameable still, worldly above hearts.

  6. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      How have more people not commented on this? This is so much fun. 

  7. Nicholas Grider

      These posts are great.  But: I usually have no problem coming up with content but I find it hard to break out of standard-issue form, so what I’m asking is whether you (or anybody) can point to techniques or catalogs (like Bernadette Mayer’s poetry experiments list) for form so every bad story I write isn’t either a list, a collection of fragments, or normative Updike bullshit.  (I’m a little frustrated with my fiction writing if that’s not apparent.)

  8. A D Jameson

      Thanks, Tim!

  9. A D Jameson

      I think that’s more a question of form and style, rather than generating text. (Of course the two topics are related, but.)

      I learned a tremendous amount about narrative form from Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, originally published in 1925. Dalkey Archive Press published an English-language edition in 1990. (You can also read a good chunk of it online, at Google Books.)

      As I learned more about the possibilities of structure in writing, I started relying less on text generation techniques—or, rather, I started using them more as prompts, feeling much more confident in taking what I wanted from them, using it as I saw fit, and discarding the rest.

      I hope this helps! I’m going to write about a few more text generation techniques, but I’ll also write some posts about narrative and poetic structure (since that’s really where my interest lies). If you have questions about specific things that are frustrating you, please let me know, and I’ll do my best to address them.

      Cheers, Adam

  10. Nicholas Grider

      Thanks!  A lot of it just has to do with being worried about my work being too normative and mainstream, which seems like a bizarre thing to worry about but I worry about everything so it’s just one more thing on the pile.  It also has to do with where I went to school (mainstream lit was discouraged) and neurological problems (hugely long story).  No specific questions but I’m looking forward to your posts about this stuff.

  11. A D Jameson

      I think I can relate. I used to worry a lot about being super-experimental. One thing Shklovsky taught me is that it’s not that hard to make something that looks pretty weird, and you can do it entirely through the employment of familiar conventions.

      I think I’ll do a series on what, specifically, I learned from Shklovsky (writing practice-wise). Look for it in a couple of weeks!

      & good luck,

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