The first person—“I,” “me,” “my,” etc.—can be a useful and stylish choice in academic writing, but inexperienced writers need to take care when using it.
There are some genres and assignments for which the first person is natural. For example, personal narratives require frequent use of the first person (see, for example, "Employing Narrative in an Essay). Profiles, or brief and entertaining looks at prominent people and events, frequently employ the first person. Reviews, such as for movies or restaurants, often utilize the first person as well. Any writing genre that involves the writer’s taste, recollections, or feelings can potentially utilize the first person.
But what about more formal academic essays? In this case, you may have heard from instructors and teachers that the first person is never appropriate. The reality is a little more complicated. The first person can be a natural fit for expository, critical, and researched writing, and can help develop style and voice in what can often be dry or impersonal genres. But you need to take care when using the personal voice, and watch out for a few traps.
First, as always, listen to your teacher, instructor, or professor. Follow the guidelines given to you; if you’re not supposed to use the first person in a particular class or assignment, don’t! Also, recognize that, while it is not universally valid or helpful, the common advice to avoid the first person in academic writing comes from legitimate concerns about its misuse. Many instructors advise their students in this way due to experience with students misusing the first person.
Why do teachers often counsel against using the first person in an academic paper? Used too frequently or without care, it can make a writer seem self-centered, even self-obsessed. A paper filled with “I,” “me,” and “mine” can be distracting to a reader, as it creates the impression that the writer is more interested in him- or herself than the subject matter. Additionally, the first person is often a more casual mode, and if used carelessly, it can make a writer seem insufficiently serious for an academic project. Particularly troublesome can be constructions like “I think” or “in my opinion;” overused, they can make a writer appear unsure or noncommittal. On issues of personal taste and opinion, statements like “I believe” are usually inferred, and thus repeatedly stating that a statement is only your opinion is redundant. (Of course, if a statement is someone else’s opinion, it must be responsibly cited.)
Given those issues, why is the first person still sometimes an effective strategy? For one, using the first person in an academic essay reminds the audience (and the author) of a simple fact: that someone is writing the essay, a particular person in a particular context. A writer is in a position of power; he or she is the master of the text. It’s easy, given that mastery, for writers and readers alike to forget that the writer is composing from a limited and contingent perspective. By using the first person, writers remind audiences and themselves that all writing, no matter how well supported by facts and evidence, comes from a necessarily subjective point of view. Used properly, this kind of reminder can make a writer appear more thoughtful and modest, and in doing so become more credible and persuasive.
The first person is also well-suited to the development of style and personal voice. The personal voice is, well, personal; to use the first person effectively is to invite readers into the individual world of the writer. This can make a long essay seem shorter, an essay about a dry subject seem more engaging, and a complicated argument seem less intimidating. The first person is also a great way to introduce variety into a paper. Academic papers, particularly longer ones, can often become monotonous. After all, detailed analysis of a long piece of literature or a large amount of data requires many lines of text. If such an analysis is not effectively varied in method or tone, a reader can find the text uninteresting or discouraging. The first person can help dilute that monotony, precisely because its use is rare in academic writing.
The key to all of this, of course, is using the first person well and judiciously. Any stylistic device, no matter its potential, can be misused. The first person is no exception. So how to use the first person well in an academic essay?
- First, by paying attention to the building blocks of effective writing. Good writing requires consistency in reference. Don’t mix between first, second, and third person. Although referring to yourself in the third person in an academic essay is rare (I hope!), sometimes references to “the author” or “this writer” can pop up and cause confusion. “This author feels it is to my advantage…” is a good example of mixing third person references (this author) with first person reference (my advantage). If you must use the third person, keep it consistent throughout your essay: “This author feels it is to his advantage…” Be aware, however, that such references can often sound pretentious or inflated. In most cases it will be better to keep to the simpler first person voice: “I feel it is to my advantage.”
- Similarly, be cautious about mixing the second and first person. Second person reference (“You feel,” “you find,” “it strikes you,”) can be a useful tool, particularly when trying to build a confessional or conversational tone. But as with the third person, mixing second and first person is an easy trap to fall into, and confuses your prose: “I often feel as if you have no choice….” While such constructions can potentially be grammatically correct, they are unnecessarily confusing. When in doubt, use only one form of reference for yourself or your audience, and be clear in distinguishing them. Again, use caution: as the second person essentially speaks for your readers, it can seem presumptuous. In most cases, the first person is a better choice.
- Finally, consistency is important when employing either the singular or plural first person (“we,” “us,” “our”). The first person plural is often employed in literary analysis: “we have to balance Gatsby’s story with Nick’s skepticism.” Here, I would recommend maintaining consistency not just within a sentence or paragraph, but within the entire text. Shifting from speaking about what I feel or think to what we feel or think invites the question of what, exactly, has changed. If a writer has made observations of the type “we know,” and then later of the type “I believe,” it suggests that the writer has lost some perspective or authority.
Once you’ve assured that you’re using the first person in a consistent, grammatically correct fashion, your most important tools are restraint and caution. As I indicated above, part of the power of the first person in an academic essay is that it is a rarely used alternative to the typical third person mode. This power only persists if you use the first person in moderation. Constantly peppering your academic essays with the first person dilutes its ability to provoke a reader. You should use the first person rarely enough to ensure that, when you do, the reader notices; it should immediately contrast with the convention you’ve built in your essay.
Given this need for restraint, student writers would do best to use the first person only when they have a deliberate purpose for using it. Is there something different about the particular passage, paragraph, or moment into which you want to introduce the first person? Do you want to call attention to a particular issue or idea in your paper, particularly if you feel less certain about that idea, or more personally connected to it? Finally, have you established a consistent use of the third person, so that using the first person here represents a meaningful change? After a long, formal argument, the first person can feel like an invitation for the reader to get a little closer.
Think of the first person as a powerful spice. Just enough can make a bland but serviceable dish memorable and tasty. Too much can render it inedible. Use the first person carefully, when you have a good reason to do so, and it can enliven your academic papers.