Why writing in the first person is a good thing

Peter Ellerton Apr 30, 2020

The use of the word “I” in academic writing, that is writing in the first person, has a troublesome history. Some say it makes writing too subjective, others that it’s essential for accuracy.

This is reflected in how students, particularly in secondary schools, are trained to write. Teachers I work with are often surprised that I advocate, at times, invoking the first person in essays or other assessment in their subject areas.

Why first person writing is important

An essential aspect of written communication is how we understand the object of the sentence and there are many occasions in which we wish to make ourselves, or at least our thinking, the object of concern.

When I am talking about the structure of someone else’s argument, or outlining or explaining their ideas, there is no need to make my thinking (which is to say me) the point. Even the evaluation of these arguments or ideas might be evaluations made by others, and so I again not a necessary part of the sentence (though, ironically, I am in these sentences). Consider the sentence, S1, below.

S1: “Bloggs (1980) claims that X is the case because of Y. Biggs (1990), however disputes that Y is sufficient reason to support X since Z.”

This is perfectly well expressed in a third person context.

In terms of making an original contribution to the debate, one could follow S1 with:

S2: “Biggs’ reply is unconvincing, however, since his conception of Y is not the same as that of Bloggs, differing in the following way…

S2 is also written in the third person, so, all seems well in the third person camp.

Now consider S3.

S3: “I find Biggs’ reply unconvincing, since his conception of Y is not the same as that of Bloggs, differing in the following way…”

What is the difference between S2 and S3? As many people would appreciate, S2 fails to say who is unconvinced. This is a failure of both clarity and accuracy. And, of course, it resorts to the loathsome passive voice.

What do we lose when we give up the first person voice

This matters in teaching for thinking because it is the student’s thinking that is often what we are looking for in an essay or other work. Why is the student unconvinced? — the reasons then follow.

Another way of looking at this, is if I want my students' thinking to be the object of my study, I need for them to make it the subject matter of their writing.

We say to students “evaluate/justify the claim or the argument”. In some subjects, that means look at what other people have said and use their arguments to arrive at a position. In that case, it is their analysis, but it is not their evaluation or justification. But teaching for thinking is not always like that, since we want students to make their own evaluations and justifications. Or at least much more overtly. Hence, we need to know what they think.

Notice that in what I have written so far, I have used first person singular, first person plural, third person singular and third person plural. So why say this is a ‘first person’ essay? The key idea is that the first person style is invoked as required, just as any other view is invoked when it is the object of the sentence.

It’s also worth noting that Science and Nature, arguably two of the world’s best science journals, ask their authors to selectively avoid third person. From Nature: “Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice ("we performed the experiment...")”.

They, like us, wish those writing for them to own what they say. I think the claim that third person is more objective is misleading, because sometimes students hide behind statements using the passive voice, with the claim of objectivity nothing more than a grammatical veneer (“it can be argued”, “some might say”, "it was decided that” rather than “I argue”, “I claim that” and “I decided that X for the following reasons”).

So, I would say use of the first person grammatical position (as opposed to ‘writing an essay in first person’) is perfectly sensible and indeed desirable in teaching for thinking. As I often say to my students, I really don’t care what you think, but I’m deeply concerned with why you think it (ooh! second person).