Copy That: Breaking the rules

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 - 12:49pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

I remember the exact moment in sixth grade when I realized an essay didn’t need to be five paragraphs: Intro, body, body, body and conclusion. It didn’t need to have topic sentences and transitions. I was always taught an essay should be concise and clean. It must be easy on the eye and straightforward — beautiful, even. Those were the rules, but I remember when I realized I was allowed to break them. I think this was one of the moments that made me want to be a writer. I understood how wonderful it is to write freely; how hallowed is a page of words that breaks the rules, how terrifying and how lovely. 

Granted, I’m the copy chief at The Michigan Daily and I spend six hours a night making sure each piece that comes in adheres to our rules. I double check names and triple check facts; truth is a rule of journalism we don’t break. Truth is not easy on the eye, and it’s not always beautiful. Like the rain, we can wish it away and it comes anyway. Without warning, it removes that final layer of dust, parting those last clouds in the sky. Sometimes, the sun shines through. 

I try really hard to do my job right. Ask me a question about grammar, and I’ll know the answer. I know the name of every city councilmember. I know the way each reporter writes. I know the cadence of the newsroom. I try to make sure what we publish is truthful, that we’re answering the questions correctly. But I’m still looking for my own answers, learning how to write the truth for myself. If you’re reading this, I’ve probably lied to you. I’ve probably told you I was okay when I wasn’t. I’ve probably said I’ll be there soon, and never came. But who hasn’t? What are the rules of telling our own truth? When do we know when we’re holding too much back, or taking it too far?

You want my truth?

I’ll confess: I spend Monday night playing with words, but can’t push past “Hey, how are you?” on Tuesday night at the bar. Sometimes I still skip meals. I chew an entire pack of gum a day. Am I really a writer if these are the first words I’ve put on a page in months? I’m recovering from an eating disorder — what do I know about breaking the rules? What do I know about living the truth?

Is it as simple as just being myself? What is simple about breaking our own rules, about ignoring the commandments we’ve laid out for ourselves? Don’t eat until you have to, always say, No, thank you.”​ Don’t ask for help. Don’t take up too much space. Intro, body, body, body and conclusion. Do you know how hard it was to eat when I was hungry? Do you know how hard it was to fill a blank page with words? 

Here’s my real topic sentence: Let’s break all the rules and put them back together again. Every time I correct your grammar, what I mean is thank you for your truth. When I leave a note in your article, what I mean is that I hear you. Journalism is about truth. Healing is about truth. 

Topic sentence. … Transition. Loving yourself through the rain is so hard. I’m tired of not talking about the hard stuff. Am I allowed to write in metaphors? I can’t breathe when I look at pictures of myself from a year ago. When I ask you if you’re okay, you can tell me the truth. I’m telling you to write as many paragraphs as you want. I’m telling you to speak your truth. I’ll be there to break the rules with you. I’ll be there to fix your commas and let you scream at the top of your lungs. 

I’m going to remind you to eat. I’m going to remind you you’re a writer. Say, “Yes, thank you.”​

I love what I do at The Daily.

I’ll confess: sometimes I complain to my friends, sometimes the work is so tedious and my name is so small in the fine print. They’ll tell you no one reads the newspaper just like they’ll tell you that skinny means beautiful. They’ll tell you to skip the metaphors and just get to the point. Stop writing about yourself; stop writing. These are the rules I’m happy to break. 

If I’ve learned anything at all — from being sick, from healing, from copy editing, from writing, from sixth grade — it is this: Make your own rules and break them.

How terrifying and lovely it is to tell the truth now. How beautiful, even.