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.