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Lessons from my time as a columnist

| Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Before I even chose a college, I knew I wanted to write for the school newspaper. When a columnist dropped mid-semester of my first-year fall, I applied to fill the spot and joined The Observer family in October. Save a “sabbatical” I took to serve as my dorm’s vice president, over the last four years, I’ve grown accustomed to sharing my unsolicited opinions with the Notre Dame family. As sad as I am to think that my biweekly oversharing is coming to an end, I can’t help but be grateful for all the joy this small little corner of the universe has brought me — and all the lessons too. 

Lessons learned from my time as a columnist:

Never underestimate the difference planning ahead makes.

As my poor friends and poorer Viewpoint editors can attest, I am not a titan of time management. I frequently show up sweaty to classes because I had to power walk from my apartment since I left late; I’ve become infamous for staying at events an hour after I announce I need to leave; I can count on one hand the times I’ve started a Viewpoint column earlier than the afternoon it was due. 

But I will say, despite my prevailing cockiness that I think can write the next Pulitzer-prize winner in an hour, the few times I’ve afforded myself more than a couple of panicked hours to scribble down my rambling thoughts, that pre-planning has made a huge difference. The columns I regret most are the ones that had great potential but were executed sloppily in haste. Take it from a girl who wrote her entire senior thesis in one stressful, sleepless week: giving your work the attention it deserves will make more than just your finished product better. 

The harder you find it to talk about something, the more you need to talk about it.

My need for full, unredacted honesty has become a bit of a joke among my family. While I do concede perhaps, I didn’t need to admit I’ve carried around loose pork in my pocket, as a general rule, the less I want to write about something, the more I know I need to. Whether I’ve been opening up about feeling unexplained sadness my sophomore year or confessing years of emotional struggles regarding my body image, the columns I’m most proud of are the ones that garnered emails from people letting me know I made them feel less alone. 

I realize everyone doesn’t have access to a tri-campus newspaper. But everyone has the opportunity to be honest and upfront about the parts of their lives that aren’t sparkly. If you’re feeling insecure about something, odds are someone else is too. Just knowing someone else out there is experiencing the same thing can make a world of difference.

You can’t judge a person off one interaction.

I’ve definitely been guilty of hearing a problematic comment in class and writing someone off as insensitive or reading a column in the newspaper and making a snap judgment about their morals. My sophomore year, I wrote about learning to find a silver lining in the unexpected quarantine through the opportunity to spend time with my elderly grandmother and sisters. Alas, in an effort to stress the positive, I swung the pendulum too far, minimizing the tragedy of the pandemic. When The Observer tweeted one particularly poorly written line, memes were made, tweets were circulated, and I felt as if the entire school hated me.

While the criticism of the column was more than valid, the people judging my situation only knew one part of the puzzle. They didn’t know the column had originally acknowledged the tragedy and conceded not everyone has a good home life but that it had to be cut for space in the paper. They didn’t know how stressed my family was about my dad’s unemployment, didn’t know we were dealing with a very sick ninety-year-old. And they couldn’t have known! They shouldn’t have known! I take full responsibility for writing a tone-deaf column, but I also take comfort in realizing the experience made me a more generous listener. 

As someone who once wanted to list “watching little boys watch little girls” as one of life’s greatest joys — thank you to my best friend and editor, Kat Machado, for letting me know that under no circumstances should that phrase ever be printed under my byline — I know firsthand that when you’re writing and speaking, it’s easy to assume everyone will be coming at your message with the same mindset and inside knowledge that you had when you said it. The next time someone says something you’re not sure about, give them a chance to explain before you condemn. We all misspeak. 

More people are paying attention than you think.

My sophomore year, I went to the career center for help deciding what to major in, and in a brief moment of frustration, I started crying. Embarrassed by my emotional display, I apologized, explaining I’d been feeling out of sorts recently. To my surprise, the counselor nodded knowingly. “Oh, I know,” she said. 

Even after she explained she knew because she read my column, I felt momentarily taken aback. All this time, I’d assumed I was shouting into the void, with only my mother, roommate and editor reading the biweekly musings I turned into the newspaper. As it turned out — both for better and for worse in my tenure — more people are paying attention than I realized.

More people know your name than say hello. More people think you’re cool than will ever tell you. It’s easy to feel like what you’re doing doesn’t matter or like no one notices if you come to class or not, but I promise you one person sitting in the back of the room is aware of your presence.

Every compliment matters.

I’ve written about this before, but I feel strongly enough that it bears repeating: tell people the nice things you think about them! Every email I’ve ever received in response to a column, short or long, personal or pedestrian — every single bit of kindness passed my way has meant more to me than its writer could ever have known. 

I’ve used this phrase in so many columns, it’s become a personal cliche, but: we live in a great, big world where it’s easy to feel small. Absolutely tell the people you love that you love them, but perhaps more importantly, tell the people you don’t know when you appreciate them, too. 

You never know. To a scared girl living two thousand miles from home, writing her thoughts down in a paper written by people immeasurably cooler than her for a school that felt incomprehensibly big, those silly little offhand comments from strangers made all the difference. 

Julianna Conley is a senior studying sociology and pre-health studies with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Though she is forever loyal to Pasquerilla East B-team athletics, Julianna now lives off campus. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @JuliannaLConley on Twitter.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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