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Be Yourself

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

My students are often shocked when I encourage them to use “I” in their writing. Wait, what? My high school teachers never let me use "I." I’m no expert in this field!

Who is writing this paper? I ask them. If you’re not the expert, who is? (I do include one caveat, however. I do not allow students to say, “I think…” “I think” is implied. It’s clutter.)

Why is this important, though? It’s important because writers are their most natural when they write in the first person. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White tell aspiring writers to "write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand" (70). Remember:

  • Short words are better than long ones.

  • Simple sentences are better than complicated ones.

  • Writing to sound important is less effective than writing to be real.

This is also why William Zinsser tells writers to avoid trying to add style to their writing—style is something they already have.

[S]tyle is organic to the person doing the writing, as much a part of him as his hair, or, if he is bald, his lack of it. Trying to add style is like adding a toupee. At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance—and with a toupee there's always a second glance—he doesn't look quite right. The problem is not that he doesn't look well groomed... The [problem] is that he doesn't look like himself.

Strunk and White agree. "[T]o achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background" (70). In doing so, you will become visible just behind your words, which is exactly where you want to be.

But, but... How can I both use the first person and put myself in the background?

The answer is this: Be yourself.

Don't put on airs. Write from your heart . . . which, yes, can be scary. As mentioned in a previous post, authentic writing requires vulnerability. When we put our thoughts on paper, we give others the opportunity to disagree with or even poke holes in our arguments. For this reason, we might try to protect ourselves by hiding behind the word "one" ("One finds himself not wholly in agreement with Dr. Reed's view of the human condition”), or the impersonal "it is" ("It is to be hoped that Professor Felt's monograph will find the wider audience it most assuredly deserves"). (Zinsser, 21)

But, ughhhh. Sure, it's less scary to say “one” or "it is," but it's also a whole lot less interesting. Writing is about connection, and it's much harder for readers to connect with "one" than with a writer who is passionate about his or her subject. Thus, by playing it safe and keeping readers at an arm's length, you risk the possibility of losing them—thus defeating your purpose for writing at all. Alternatively, by being yourself, you open yourself up to connecting with your readers and discovering your shared humanity.

Sure, being vulnerable can be scary, but the potential for payout is worth it, don't think?


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2 comentarios

Randall Collis
Randall Collis
22 sept 2022

Great post, Jessica! With my writing, I still hear my teachers telling me not to use "I" and then hearing my college professors ask me why I use "one" so much :-) Authenticity when writing is so important. It is great to see you are doing well.

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Jessica Cyphers
Jessica Cyphers
01 oct 2022
Contestando a

Thank you, Randall! I'm hanging in there. I agree that authenticity is hugely important!

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