Columns, Opinions

Okin ’19 : Write before you like

Staff Columnist
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Apparently, many of us college students are graduating with a degree, but without a basic competency: the ability to write. According to the Washington Post, fewer and fewer college students are learning the skills needed to write a strong paper. Social media is partially to blame: With the opportunities to like, follow and retweet, the ability to string sentences together seems useless in expressing our opinions in the 21st-century. However, writing for the public sphere — whether it’s a personal essay or an op-ed — is as important as ever. Developing our personal voices through writing is not only a critical means of self-discovery, but also an exercise in expressing our individuality and generating the narratives that can impact others. The value of cultivating our voices cannot be underestimated. Whether we decide to keep them private or share them with our Facebook friends, the stories we write are crucial to understanding ourselves.

As young students in college, we should treasure the unique perspectives and feelings we’ve got in this moment in our lives. We will never again be 19, wholeheartedly consumed with our calculus homework; we will never again be 20, inspired and confused and probably revealing too many private emotions in opinions columns. The voice we develop — how we express ourselves in our speech and in our writing — is sculpted by lives no one else has lived and reflect the totality of our experiences. We ought to pay attention to our voice, so we can use it to make sense of our surroundings.  But to cultivate such a voice, we need practice.

The easy “reaction” functions on social media have surely allowed users to feel instant and tangible support. However, trouble arises when we  “reacters” find ourselves thinking an “angry” emoji can supplant our own, uniquely-expressed response to an issue. This is not to say people should feel required to share their narratives with others, but there is value in fully articulating your thoughts, even if it’s just in a journal. Relying on buttons to express our explicit feelings can lead to blind partisanship, irresponsible citizenship and a lack of preparation for the world that confronts us after graduation. If we allow ourselves to consider a “like” or “share” button the end-all of our opinions, we dismiss critical analysis for the laziness of groupthink and fake news. We forget to interrogate why we believe what we believe and lose interest in discussing complicated issues with others in a respectful, civil way. Perhaps our current climate of political hyperpolarization is propelled in part by the blind agreement encouraged by social media. Without the serious self-reflection enabled by writing, we lose the opportunity to check how we really think about an issue. In short, we lose touch with how feel about the world around us — and hurt our ability to make a difference — when we don’t write.

Instead, we need to consciously develop our voices to combat the convenient appeal of the “agree” or “disagree” binary. When we train ourselves to value writing as an active medium, we become better equipped to positively influence the people around us and understand our own stance on an issue. And if we choose to, we can share our perspectives with the world and impact large numbers of people. To understand how our identities are best revealed in our writing, we can look to a writer not taught in the classic Brown curriculum — specifically, to the words of Marina Keegan. To know Keegan’s story is to know incredible tragedy: Days after graduating from Yale, with a coveted New Yorker position and Brooklyn apartment in front of her, she was killed in a car accident. A prolific writer, Keegan is accordingly memorialized through a selection of her essays and stories, compiled by her family, friends and teachers.

In the introduction to this collection, her professor Anne Fadiman observes Keegan’s writing style: “Marina was 21 and sounded 21 … a (student) who understood that there were few better subjects than being young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.” This comment encapsulates what I also found so inspiring about Keegan’s words and the philosophy I want to suggest in this column. Our writing represents who we are, and when we don’t care enough to cultivate our voices, we lose critical artifacts of our identities. But when we do take the time to express ourselves, we become better  at conveying elements of our identities in social media posts, essays and speeches. And consequently, others will be able to understand us better. Keegan may not have been writing to change the world, but her thoughtful and authentic voice in her viral essay “The Opposite of Loneliness” — which appeared in Yale’s commencement magazine five days before her death — reached over 1.4 million people.

Before I came to Brown, Keegan didn’t intrigue me because of her “magna cum laude” status or the fact she was studying English, the subject I was also already captivated by. She impacted me because she demonstrated how powerful and important one’s voice is. She taught me the invaluable nature of one’s perspective and the importance of letting it ooze onto the page. Next time you’re trying to confront a difficult issue, refrain from simply clicking “like.” Instead, spend the time to aptly express yourself. You’ll find that it’s worth it.


Rebecca Okin ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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