Many people weighed in with tributes to Nora Ephron after her June 26 death, but the one that resonated most with me was penned by Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly. It wasn’t the litany of her considerable accomplishments as a journalist, screenwriter and director that caused me to cheer out loud, nor the gems regurgitated from some of her books and most memorable characters. It was this passage:
In 1980, Ephron wrote beautifully about the journalistic peril of the word I. “The best approach to its use ought to be discomfort,” she contended. “Do you really need it? Does it add something special to the piece? Is what you think interesting enough to make the reader care? Are you saying something that no one has said? Above all, do you understand that you are not as important as what you’re covering?”
That’s a paragraph every student journalist – and more than a few adult ones – should commit to memory. In this age of social media, when Facebook and Twitter and Google+ incessantly tempt us to blast our every last thought to the masses, it’s hard not to buy into the mistaken premise that everyone is entitled to our opinions.
There’s a place for “I.” It’s not in straight-up news content, or even in feature stories. And even when opinion is appropriate, it’s entirely possible to write columns, commentaries, reviews and op/ed pieces without using the word “I.”
Trust me on that. It’s a challenge I (ha) routinely set for myself in writing reviews for my hometown newspaper. It didn’t happen every time, but often enough that “I” became more of an exception in my pieces than the rule.
Part of my motivation in doing that was to set a good example for the teen journalists under my supervision. If I (there it is again) could do it, so could they.
And some of them did, with the happy result of more thoughtful, well-written opinion pieces. The “I’s” didn’t always have it.
Sorry, couldn’t resist.