Two days ago I wrote a post about some unofficial rules I’d made up. An old friend gently chided me because I’d said that the rules “worked great” for me. She thought I needed a more professional tone.
I emailed her that I’d checked the dictionary before publishing the post, and she was right: great indeed is an informal adverb. “Worked great” is too folksy for formal writing.
But here’s the thing: I don’t always feel like writing formally. And it’s not just that I hate pompous language: I also get tired of striving for objectivity.
Sometimes I want to discuss the mysterious pathways my thoughts have been taking…or exploring an idea in the context of my own life.
In the My Fair Lady article I just published, I talked about my thoughts and feelings several times:
On a recent trip to New York I bought a ticket for the Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s musical version of Pygmalion. My Fair Lady has always been special for me: it was my first Broadway play and my first encounter with Shaw. On the subway ride to Lincoln Center, I knew I was going to be seeing a superb production—but I also knew I was supporting an enterprise that would have appalled GBS.
When I first saw My Fair Lady in the early 1960’s, I was thrilled by the prospect of a Higgins-Doolittle wedding. But by 1992 my feelings had changed….I was sure Eliza would never marry Higgins, and by the time I’d bought my ticket for My Fair Lady in 2018, those convictions had deepened and hardened. Starting in October 2017, news outlets were flooded with #MeToo news stories about men who treated women as if they were less than human. I’d had some life experience of my own with male-female power struggles….
Our ideas about language are evolving. We used to think that you could ensure objectivity by carefully avoiding the words I, me, and my. Police officers were taught to write “this officer” instead of I. “The suspect was patted down” guaranteed that you were telling the truth; “I patted down the suspect” hinted that you were lying.
It was all nonsense, of course. Today (thanks in large part to the postmodern language theory) we’re recognizing that there’s no such thing as total objectivity. Avoiding the words I and me won’t turn a dishonest person into an honest one.
Every academic project involves opinions and decisions. Even choosing My Fair Lady as a topic involved a value judgment: I thought the play was important enough to be worth study.
Why not be honest about your values and opinions?
My larger point is that sometimes it’s okay to challenge the rules. That raises an important question: how do you know when you’re allowed to follow your own path?
The answer is that you don’t. If you’re a professional writer, it helps to study the publisher or journal you’re writing for. You can often get a sense of what they’re looking for and what rules they follow – and when it’s safe to break them.
But sometimes you just have to jump in. That involves admitting to yourself that you’re taking a risk, and deciding not to be disheartened if an experiment doesn’t work out for you.
Writing is always about you – your style, memories, experiences, values, beliefs, interests. Writing honestly is a way of honoring who you are. I encourage you to embrace the risks. And don’t forget to have fun!