nonfiction

‘Don’t use YOU’: Writing advice from a high school paper on Shakespeare

Reviewing one of my high school papers I saved from over two decades ago, in which I discussed King Lear, I note my original paragraph:

Some people are able to maintain their goodwill to others despite personal insult and tragedy. Edgar says, ‘[I,] by the art of known and feeling sorrows, / am pregnant to good pity.” The context is not optimistic, but his philosophy is clear, and it is more promising than the idea that people are born evil and misfortunate. Edgar says that when bad things happen to you, you can make something good out of something bad or at least grow as a person.

The teacher’s feedback in red pen on that last sentence: “Don’t use you.”

The teacher was correct. “You” was a bit too informal here, especially as my paper about human nature was otherwise written in third person.

“…when bad things happen to you, you can make something good out of something bad…”

Similarly, several years later, in college, I wrote in a classics paper on Lysistrata: “Therefore, if most of the women don’t pretend to be deeply committed to a political agenda…” and the professor circled “don’t” and wrote in the margin: “Avoid colloquialism.” Maybe that, too, was the correct guidance to conform to the habits of the scholarly genre at the time.

Photograph of a college paper on the Lysistrata. Relevant sentence: "Therefore, if most of the women don't pretend to be deeply committed to a political agenda, this only makes them more honest than the men."

“…if most of the women don’t pretend…”

But when my inner self-critic finger-wags at me, even today, “Don’t use you,” “Don’t use don’t,” I’d do well to remember where this teacherly advice came from. These were shorthand comments that applied to specific papers. They may not apply to whatever I’m writing today.

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