Last winter, I struggled with writing an application for a program that I desperately wanted to be admitted to. The most fundamental section of the application consisted of five personal short answer questions. Once I had settled on the ideas I wanted to express in my responses, I faced a whole new challenge: how to write them. I wrote freely and tried not to get in my own way, but faced a few worries when I went back to revise. This application was supposed to reflect me — but could it reflect me too much? I wanted to use a strikethrough and a few parenthetical asides, but would these cross some kind of invisible line separating acceptable from too personal? I struggled with deciding how much to allow myself as a person to come through in my answers. And by struggled, I mean struggled. I was doing homework at the same table as a few friends at the time, and I interrupted all of them to ask for help. I called my mom to talk to her about it. I may have sought advice via text.
As a copy editor, my job is to proofread. My job is to fact-check, to look closely at grammar and syntax and to intuitively understand how to polish articles before they go on to be published in our newspaper. While I’m not necessarily editing for voice, editors still want to make sure that the tone of the Michigan Daily pieces follow the professional standard we strive to uphold. In this role, my waffling and questioning disappears. I trust myself to read the work of others and suggest a rewrite for clarity or a change in punctuation. I love this position. I am at my most confident in the writing process when I’m reading work with a critical eye.
Obviously, reading the work of others and revising your own work are two completely different situations. My hesitancy in my application is only one instance of many in which I struggled with how to write. I have hit this obstacle in many of my other writings, some academic, some personal. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with my ability to write. The problem is rooted in indecisiveness, in an inability to commit to my voice and move forward with the text, whether that be an application, an email or a tweet.
For many writers, writing is deeply personal. It’s almost impossible to distance yourself enough from your own work to revise it fairly. I strongly believe that it is always valuable to have another person (or a few people) review your work. However, questioning my own voice was getting in the way of my writing. It was drawing me away from how I wanted to write and toward this undefined notion of how I thought I should write. Even as I asked for advice about the strikethrough and parenthetical phrases, I knew that I wasn’t really unsure of these devices. I liked them and wanted to use them. Frankly, I thought they were funny, and laughing at my own jokes is a pretty key part of my personality. I wasn’t looking for deciding votes from the people I asked — I was looking for permission to be myself in my writing.
After thinking about how much time I spent asking for someone to give me the go-ahead to write the way I was comfortable writing, I realized that something had to change. While I wasn’t going to be able to get the distance in my own writing and revising that I have when I’m editing articles for the Daily, I had to try and let myself be both a writer and an editor. I had to trust my writing skills and my voice. I had to trust my experience reading with a critical eye and use it for my own work. The goal was never to be able to write a perfect piece of work on my own, but to manage to free myself from the strange limbo I encountered each time I couldn’t decide if I was crossing a line into using my individual voice too much.
I want to turn in papers that adhere to high academic standards, of course. But I also want to turn in papers that I’m happy with personally. I’m not at the place yet where I’ve stopped asking for approval entirely. I still text my mom asking for help with emails. I might not ever be able to stop questioning completely, but I’m doing better. I don’t have any authority on this matter beyond my own personal experience. With that in mind, if there’s something I’m trying to remind myself of on a regular basis because of the demands of being an English major, it’s this: don’t be afraid to write yourself into your paper.