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Writing in the first person

"Me, myself, and I; writing in the first person"

First published December 16, 1994

"First person should be permitted in academic and technical writing"
First published December 15, 2014


First published December 16, 1994

Me, myself, and I; writing in the first person

By Stephen Wilbers

After 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 the sentence.

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 seemed condescending."

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.

 

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First published December 15, 2014

First person should be permitted in academic and technical writing

By Stephen Wilbers

For this column, I’d like to do something a little different. I’d like to give you an inside look into an academic debate taking place within many graduate programs. Its topic – whether the first person is acceptable in technical, scientific, and academic writing – is relevant to many on-the-job writers.

 

My vote is to allow its use.

 

Because writing in the first person creates a more personal, informal tone, its use has traditionally been regarded as unscientific in technical fields. As one colleague points out, “The use of the first person is challenging for many writers, often unconsciously shifting their balance toward opinion rather than presentation of facts and reasoning.”

 

I agree that allowing its use poses certain challenges. Overcoming these challenges, however, requires just the sort of sophistication we require of our graduates.

 

Writing in the first person offers four distinct advantages. First, it generally leads to more concise, emphatic, and colorful writing (although technical writers like Lewis Thomas can write memorably in any person). Second, it encourages use of the active voice rather than the passive. Compare, for example, “Surprised by these anomalies, I decided to investigate further” with “Because of these anomalies, further investigation was conducted.”

 

Third, the first person is less likely to produce dangling and misplaced errors, a grammatical error all too common in writing that prohibits use of the first person, as in “After discovering these anomalies, further research was conducted” and “To effect this change, it is necessary to win over our team members,” compared with the grammatically correct “After discovering these anomalies, I conducted further research” and “To effect this change, we must win over our team members.”

 

A fourth argument is more difficult to articulate and substantiate, but it may in the end be the most compelling: First person personal is the way the modern mind seems to be evolving. It’s the way we formulate and express our thoughts. As Constance Hale argues in Wired Style and as Nicholas Carr laments in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, the personal, informal voice (as well as the glib and unthinking) is the voice of the future, not just in blogs, tweets, and memoir, but in all types of writing.

 

To appreciate the change, one has only to compare the formal, distant voice of literary criticism in the 1950s (today we would call it stodgy) with the highly personal voices of Rebecca Mead in My Life in Middlemarch and Azar Nafisi in The Republic of Imagination, two works of brilliant literary criticism offered in the form of memoir. Closer to home, the first-person voices of U of M faculty members Roger Jones in Physics as Metaphor, Karal Ann Marling in The Colossus of Roads, and Elaine Tyler May in Barren in the Promised Land have not only opened the door for younger scholars in their respective disciplines, but also reached wider audiences for their own scholarship.

 

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