Articles Narrator, Point of View, & Perspective Writing

Me, Myself, &… The Researcher? The First Person in Academic Writing

In our secondary school years, our teachers cautioned us against the use of the first person in expository writing. Through lectures and the red pen, we learned to fear the formidable power of I.  Why? As a composition teacher, my own words of caution against the use of the first person in academic writing were less about its weaknesses than a lack of reverence for its potential.

But while I is vulnerable to abuse and misuse, thoughtful writers can wield the powers of a first-person narrative to create effective, engaging content—even in the academic arena.

The Trouble with the First Person in Academic Writing

For graduate students and PhD candidates, apprehension towards the first person is rooted deeply throughout the slippery slopes of the inescapable ideology that pervades the scientific community: Just consider the dialectic title of medical researcher William Martin’s (2013) article,  Science is dispassionate, we are told.

In the interest of contributing objective truth to collective scientific knowledge, we believe that we must approach our research and writing with noble detachment—we must keep it impersonal. This conviction feeds first-person anxiety, for what word can make it feel more personal than I?

Apprehensive writers therefore give the imposing first-person pronouns a wide berth, a difficult task considering that it is the writer who is at the very heart of every step in the research process.

The result? Well, there is more than one possibility, but before I delve into the potentially problematic writing of I-fearers (later in this series), I’ll consider the devices of masterful first-person avoidance.  Read On: On I, Part 2: Alternatives to the First Person in Academic Writing

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