The dreaded “I” word. How can one letter be so malignant when it comes to academic writing?
It’s likely that many of your teachers and professors have drilled it into your head that using first-person writing in your essays will immediately result in another unrelenting letter of the alphabet: “F.”
As a curious student, you may be thinking that surely there must be some instances where using first-person writing is okay.
If that’s you, you’re asking all the right questions. This post will cover when it’s okay to use first-person writing in your essays and when it’s better to stick with third-person.
What Exactly Is First-Person Writing?
First-person writing involves using singular first-person pronouns such as I, me, my, mine, etc. You could also use plural first-person pronouns such as we, our, us, ours, etc.
For instance, this adorable kitten is talking primarily in first-person perspective (the “you” and “your” there is second-person perspective, which could be another blog topic entirely).
First-person writing can get really boring really fast. For example, I’ll write a short narrative about my day so far.
I opened my emails.
I ate breakfast.
The neighbor’s dog annoyed me.
I pet my cats and later pushed them off the couch.
I thought about eating popcorn for breakfast…but didn’t.
My roommate and I could not decide whether or not to hang the art in our apartment.
While I might think I am fascinating, you have probably stopped reading the list by now. You’re done hearing about me, me, me, right?
Well, think of that as part of the reason your teachers might boycott first-person pronouns. If your professor wants you to write an essay about President Obama, he or she probably doesn’t want to hear about what you (or the President for that matter) ate for breakfast.
When Is First-person Writing Ineffective or Unwarranted?
Let’s face it. Everyone likes to write about themselves. The problem with first-person perspective in academic writing is that it can sound
When your instructor wants you to write a 15-page research paper about the problems in the Middle East, exclusively talking about your opinions on the matter is going to be an issue.
Instead, you should look for unbiased sources, search through the material, and use that in your research paper to make it more credible. Yes, that might sound like a lot more work, but it will pay off when you get your grade.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to take out first-person writing altogether. If you have the impulse to write in first-person perspective a lot, that’s okay! It’s still a great way to get your thoughts out on paper.
For example, pretend that this is one of my main points for a poem analysis I am writing:
Using words such as “melancholy” and “frustration,” the poem made me feel sad.
In this case, the first-person “me” would not be appropriate because the focus needs to be on the poem itself and not on what I think about it. But, because I wrote this, I now understand what the poem is doing.
I can rewrite this idea in my second draft using third-person perspective:
Using words such as “melancholy” and “frustration,” the poem employs a mournful tone to demonstrate the difficulty that comes with the loss of a loved one.
Most times, you’re the only one who will see your first draft, so go ahead and throw first-person perspective in if it helps you get your thoughts on paper. Make sure, however, that you go through and take it out in your revision.
Make or Break Your Academic Career: When Is First-person Writing Okay?
Okay, I was being dramatic with that header. Really, if you mess up on choosing whether to use first-person writing or not, you don’t have to forever hang your head in shame. You might get a slap on the wrist (in the form of some red marks on your paper), but it’s not the end of the world.
However, it never hurts to educate yourself on the dos and don’ts of first-person writing.
While essays about you require first-person, other types of essays (e.g., research papers) usually should not include first-person perspective.
Here are some examples of types of essays that, by their nature, require first-person writing:
- Personal narrative essays
- Memoir/reflective essays
- Personal statements (e.g., college application essays)
Try writing an essay about the first time you went to the dentist (narrative essay) without using first-person writing. It would probably sound something like this:
One time, someone’s mom took a person to the dentist, and that person did not like the dentist because the person had cavities.
Writing using “I” just makes more sense for the context:
One time, my mom took me to the dentist, and I did not like the dentist because I had cavities.
Much better, right? There, you already have ammo to use against your teacher when he or she says “no” to first-person writing.
If you would like to look at more examples of essays that require first-person writing, check out these sample personal narrative essays!
Getting Down and Dirty with First-Person Writing
Now we get to the more complicated bit: knowing when to use first-person writing in other types of academic papers.
As a failsafe, I would suggest that you stay away from first-person writing in most instances. As long as you are not writing personal essays, it would be hard to go wrong with leaving yourself out of it.
There are cases where first-person writing is appropriate in other types of academic writing, but I would highly suggest discussing it with your professor first. Here are a couple of those cases:
Case #1 – Replacing Passive Voice with First-person Writing
Passive voice is another no-no that professors and teachers pound into students’ heads, and one way to fix it is to use first-person perspective. Here is a sentence that is in passive voice:
The flask was used to combine the liquids so the experiment could be observed.
While some style guides say to limit passive voice, others strictly say not to use it at all. For instance, the above sentence would not be acceptable in APA Style. Here is one way to fix the sentence:
The researcher used the flask to combine the liquids and observe the experiment.
However, if you are the researcher, it would be appropriate to use “I” in your APA format lab write-up.
I used the flask to combine the liquids and observe the experiment.
“We” would also be appropriate an appropriate pronoun if there were more than one researcher and you were one of them.
We used the flask to combine the liquids and observe the experiment.
Case #2 – Personal Anecdotes
In some essays, adding a personal experience or anecdote can make your essay more successful. For instance, talking about an experience you had when you went to a public forum might be pertinent in a persuasive essay about why more people need to attend public forums.
That being said, don’t go crazy with the first-person writing like this guy.
In these types of essays, limit your use of first-person writing to maybe one short paragraph, and make sure that the writing is relevant to your topic. If you are writing an essay about how important doctors are, for example, you might not want to talk about how your dog has superpowers.
Just a hunch.
The Verdict on First-person Writing: Sometimes
Like many hard-and-fast rules, there are instances when using first-person pronouns (or even running red lights) is okay.
Remember that personal essays (essays about you) need first-person writing. Research papers, literary analyses, and other academic papers, on the other hand, can include first-person writing on a situational basis as long as it is relevant and does not occur all the way through the essay.
If you need help taking the first-person pronouns out of your essay, you can always get help from our talented Kibin editors.
*Cover image by Frederik Delaere
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
In the past, you might have had problems getting that polished, professional feel to your essays, but you couldn’t quite figure out why. Are your ideas too underdeveloped? Is your thesis statement not good enough? Do you not have enough support for your arguments?
Sometimes the problem with your essay is simply the point of view you choose to write in. Using third-person writing can make a world of difference in giving your essay the right tone.
Three Different Points of View
If you’re not sure what the different points of view are, I’ll give you a run-down and some examples to help you see more clearly. And for an added bonus, I’ll give you a couple clips from the king of narration himself, Morgan Freeman.
When you write in first person, you use I and me. Think of yourself as the “first person”–any pronoun that indicates something you do or think is going to be first person. You see this a lot when you’re reading books from the main character’s perspective.
Typically, however, first-person writing is not very effective in writing essays. (We’ll get to why that is in a second.)
Example: I believe that third-person writing is the best point of view when writing an essay.
First-person writing or narration also uses us and we, as you’ll see in this example:
Second-person point of view uses the pronoun you. Second-person writing is the equivalent to a choose-your-own-adventure novel or a self-help book. It speaks directly to the audience.
However, the conversational tone of writing in second-person is not usually ideal for academic writing.
Example: You would do better on your essays if you wrote in third person.
It is important to note that when you aren’t writing strictly in third person, the point of view can shift from sentence to sentence.
In the next example, you’ll notice that both first-person and second-person points of view are present. The lyrics Freeman reads shift between using “you/your” and first-person singular pronouns throughout the clip.
Third-person writing uses the pronouns they, him, her, and it, as well as proper nouns. This is the type of writing you would see in a novel with an outside narrator.
Example: Teachers and students agree that third-person writing makes essays sound better.
Here’s one last video example, this one using third-person perspective, from the man with the golden voice:
Why Third-Person Writing is Important
Third-Person Writing Makes Your Essay Sound More Assertive.
If you write your essay in first person, you risk the chance of statements like “I think” or “I believe.” These kinds of statements sound more passive than just stating your facts. Notice the difference between the following sentences:
This is why I believe jazz is the first form of truly American music.
This is why jazz is the first form of truly American music.
The second sentence–the one that uses third-person–sets a more definite tone. You are presenting the sentence as a statement of fact instead of a personal belief.
Third-Person Writing Makes Your Support Sound More Credible.
On a related note, first-person writing makes your support sound like it’s coming from a non-credible source. Presenting facts or opinions with “I think” or “I believe” in front doesn’t give any validity to the statement.
Third-person writing encourages you to use other sources to validate your claims. The following two sentences will illustrate this further:
I believe that children should consume less sugar because it leads to higher risk of obesity.
According to the Obesity Action Coalition, children who consume a lot of sugar have an increased risk of obesity.
The second sentence pulls an authoritative source to support the claim instead of you, the writer. This makes the claim more credible to the reader.
Third-Person Writing Sounds Less Conversational and More Professional.
As I mentioned before, writing in the first or second person leads to a more conversational tone. While this may be good for some forms of writing (this blog post, for example), you want your academic writing to take on a more formal tone. Consider the following examples:
When writing a novel, you should think about what kind of tone you want to portray before choosing which point of view you want to use.
When writing a novel, authors should think about the kind of tone they want to portray before choosing which point of view they want to use.
The first sentence creates a more intimate and conversational tone with the reader, but the second sentence tells the reader what kind of person (authors) would benefit from reading the sentence.
It is more specific and, therefore, creates a more formal tone.
Exceptions to the Third-Person Writing Rule
I won’t ever tell you that it’s always a good idea to write one specific way. Third-person writing is usually a good idea in academic writing, but there are cases where first-person writing is a better call.
When You’re Writing A Personal Narrative.
Personal narrative essays are designed to tell the reader something that has happened in your life, so first-person writing would be the preferred choice here. Whether it be something that embarrassed you, angered you, or made you proud or happy, narrative essays are all about real-world life experiences.
When You’re Talking About Your Own Opinions.
Like narrative essays, using your own opinions in essays may sometimes require the use of the first person, especially if you are drawing on personal experiences. Usually, this will happen in persuasive essays.
It is important to note that you should still try to use third-person writing for your persuasive essays because, as I mentioned earlier, it will give a more formal tone and more credibility to your argument. However, if some personal experience is especially relevant, it would be okay to use the first person (unless your teacher says otherwise, of course).
When You’re Doing Other Informal Types of Writing.
Essays are not the only types of writing assignments you’re likely to receive. Short stories and poetry pop up in classes from time to time, and these can be written any number of ways. Short stories can take the first- or third-person perspective–they rarely use second person. Poetry can use any of the three points of view.
(For more, read When to Use First-Person Writing in Your Essays)
When you are concentrating strictly on academic essays, third-person writing is (usually) crucial. And it’s not hard to do. Just look at any references to yourself or the reader and change around the sentence to eliminate the I, me, you, we, and us pronouns. Doing so will make your writing stronger, clearer, and more professional.
If you still can’t quite get the hang of third-person writing, there’s no need to stress out over it. Just send your essay to one of the Kibin editors to help you out.
Now… go try your hand at third-person writing!
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