years of being told not to write in a personal voice, you are now free to
use the first person "I" and "we."
No longer are you forced to use the passive
voice, as in "A decision must be made by Friday." No longer are you stuck
with cold, distant constructions, such as "It is necessary to make a
decision by Friday."
No longer are you compelled to use
awkward substitutions, such as "One must decide by Friday" or "This
manager must decide by Friday"—anything, apparently, to avoid the dreaded
"I" word. You are now free to write, simply, "I must decide by Friday."
It’s a wonderful freedom, this access to
the first person pronoun. It enables you to present your thoughts
directly, to create a personal tone, to convey personality.
But with freedom comes responsibility.
Here are some guidelines to help you
determine when writing in the first person might be too much of a good
thing. Avoid using "I" or "we" as your subject:
When you risk creating the
impression that you are "I-centered."
Using too many "I’s" suggests
that you are more interested in yourself than your reader. Because we live
in an "I-centered" society, we tend to overuse the first person in our
writing. To guard against this, check the first sentence in each
paragraph. If every paragraph begins with "I," you probably have created
an "I-centered" impression.
When you are not the true subject of
When you catch yourself writing, "I had three customers
call me this week to complain about late delivery," ask yourself, "What am
I doing in this sentence?" The answer: nothing. "I" doesn’t belong
there. Begin the sentence with its true subject: "Three customers called
me this week to complain about late delivery."
How would you revise this sentence:
"This month we had several taxpayers call to complain about not receiving
the correct S/T forms"?
When you want to remove
yourself from a delicate situation.
Life offers us enough awkward situations
without our jumping into the middle of things unnecessarily. Keep the
focus off yourself and on the problem. Rather than "I have a problem with
your coming in late every morning," write "Your coming in late every
morning is causing problems for the office." Rather than "I thought the
tone of your letter was condescending," write "The tone of your letter
When calling attention to yourself
detracts from your message.
In persuasive writing, an objective voice
is often more effective than a subjective one. Compare, for example,
"Taxation without representation is unjust" to "I think it’s unjust to tax
us when we’re not even represented."
How would you revise these sentences:
"Since the rental car and hotel were only $250 of the package, I don’t
understand the charge of $650"; "I seriously doubt that cooking on the
grill damaged the paint on the garage"?
When you want to emphasize
the reader’s interests rather than your own.
This is called writing from
the "you perspective." It involves focusing on your reader’s interests
rather than your own. Compare, for example, "I need you to return these
forms to me by January 15, so I can process your payroll documents" to "To
receive your first paycheck on February 1, you need to return these forms
to me by January 15."
In most instances, your reader would
rather hear what you are thinking ("I recommend") than what is
thought ("It is recommended"). But be careful not to abuse your
freedom of access to the first person. A little bit of me,
myself, and I can go a long way.