Help! I Is Missing Again!

At lunch the other day, a group of English teachers were laughing about some of the things we find funny in student papers. Note that we weren’t laughing at students, but at how often we see the same mistakes, and one of the funniest is that we often have no idea who is writing a paper. I fully understand why this would only be funny to English teachers – we live a droll life.

If you think about it, an essay or journal piece should be easily identifiable for a teacher. After all, you’re looking into the mind of a student and presumably learning a lot about that individual through his or her writing. It should be easy to match up the paper to the student if there’s no name on the page, but surprisingly many pieces of writing are very unclear on who’s doing the talking. Who is the “I” the paper is about?

This translates to many of us writing today. Who am I in fact? If you’ve just met me through this piece you might have glanced at my byline to see that I’m a female freelance writer. You might have scrolled down to read by bio and seen that I am an educational writer and take a truly outstanding picture. But what if those clues weren’t there? Consider how many blogs and articles are missing bylines and bios. How many papers and posts do you write about your services or on topics and experiences without ever letting the audience know who you are? If we don’t know who you are, we have no reason to trust what you’re saying. You have to define “I.”

Defining “I”

Let’s pretend I don’t have a byline or a bio on this piece. If you look at the first sentence you’ll get a fairly good idea of my background. I’m an English teacher. I teach in a setting with other teachers who have lunch together. You might infer that I teach older students who are writing essays in English class – and you’d be right. I teach high school.

Now, why does that matter? It matters because I’m telling you about a critical part of writing. You have to define and characterize the narrator if you’re trying to tell me a story about yourself. If I failed to give you my background through that first sentence, this might read more like a vague blog entry about essays, and you’d have no idea who was writing it or what was going on.

In the students’ papers, the mysterious “I” tends to come out most in narrative pieces, or stories. They write pieces like, “I knew that something needed to change, and I wanted to challenge myself. So I came to this new school to try and find better opportunities for myself.” It’s a good start. It’s inspiring, perhaps. But who is writing this? Is it a girl? A boy? A Russian immigrant? A high school student who tried to commit suicide last week? A boy who was just cut from the football team? We have no idea.

In the world of the high school narrative, this paper could drone on like this for paragraphs before it’s ever clear who we’re talking to and why it matters. Not only is it boring, it defeats the purpose of the narrative. How are we going to know what the story is about unless “I” is a real person providing the basis of the narration in relative terms early on in the piece.

What about I?

If you’ve reached this point and wondered how this relates to you and what you do, I challenge you to go back to your blog or your website. Look through those articles you’ve submitted for samples various places. Take a glance at your postings on forums or query emails you’ve been sending out. Freelance writers write about themselves or through their own perspective very frequently. Yet, often we forget that the whole world doesn’t know who we are or what we’re about.

Future clients and potential audiences aren’t going to be impressed if they don’t have faith in your background and abilities. And it’s up to you to convince them of why they should trust you.

To do that, you need to include the meaning of “I” in your work. You can write terrific sales letters and travel articles. Your blogs can be informative and motivational. But if we never know who is actually writing them – and I mean more than just your name and smiling mug shot next to the piece - we’re really never going to fully engage in your work. And neither are your clients.

Profile image for Rebecca Garland
Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

2 thoughts on “Help! I Is Missing Again!”

  1. Pretty interesting post. It’s strange, but it’s taken me until this year to have an epiphany that I’ve written literally thousands of blog posts yet hadn’t really told many people who I am. Recently I’ve been taking care of that, even though on one blog there are lots of followers and people commenting. I felt they didn’t know the true essence of me, who I was, and thus I was restricting my potential influence and long term income goals.

    You’re right, most of us assume we’ve done this well, but upon reflection we probably have missed many opportunities.

  2. Rebecca:

    Loved this post-so much it inspired a post 🙂

    I was thinking of writing a post about the cropping up again of “I” in headings & posts, then I read this post. It showed me there really is a need for balance and it gave me another way to look at the subject. When you can do that, that’s great writing-so thanks!


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