Authorial First Person

There’s one issue that invariably comes up in a graduate writing class: the permissibility of using the first person. No matter what aspect of academic writing I am covering, someone will pose this question. My basic answer is simple: ‘Yes, you can definitely use the first person in academic writing’. To clarify this point, I like to reframe the first person as the ‘authorial first person’: the use of the first person to position yourself as the author of this piece of research writing. Research is done by researchers; scholarly writing is produced by writers. Excluding that agency is no longer required in most spheres of academic writing. This advance has interconnected philosophical and stylistic roots. Academic writing is not a disembodied practice representing a view from nowhere; instead, it is better seen as an evidence-based situated practice. The evidence-based element is crucial, but so is the recognition of positionality. All writing is done by a person, and that person necessarily writes from a particular perspective. Since you are the author, you ought to be visible in the text; the authorial first person is crucial to that visibility.

The style of your writing is also likely to be improved by judicious use of the authorial first person. Framing what will happen in your text as actions that you are undertaking will generally lead to stronger writing. The simplest version of this framing is straightforward signposting: ‘In this chapter, I will discuss …’. In some cases, the first person can act as a crucial transition. Imagine that you have been talking at length about other people’s views on a particular issue; to signal a return to your own perspective, the first person might be beneficial: ‘Despite the prevalence of [some] viewpoint, I argue that …’. Another variant of this pattern is using the first person for emphasis. When you switch to the first person from a passive construction, for instance, the reader will pay particular attention to your point: ‘[Something] has long been done in our field; in this paper, however, we decided to do [something different]’.

Despite the acceptability and value of the authorial first person, its use must still be managed carefully. In the first place, the use of the first person is disciplinary. Learning to deploy it appropriately is one of many things that will make you a convincing member of your discourse community. Learning those patterns requires engagement with solid publications in your field; in my experience, many graduate student writers express greater conservatism about the use of the first person than do gatekeepers in their field. Attentive reading can ensure that you are not making your decisions about the first person based on outdated precepts garnered at earlier points in your education. 

A second note of caution: consider how using the first person might lead to unsupported pronouncements. Such statements sometimes happen because the writer genuinely lacks evidence (‘I just believe that …’); obviously, such statements have little role in academic writing. I find it helpful to think of these as ‘editorial first person’ rather than the authorial first person we are discussing in this post. Although this type of editorializing is rare in the writing that I see, I mention it because concerns about editorial first person can lead to the avoidance of much-needed authorial first person. In my experience, most things that look like editorial first person are actually functioning like training wheels: ‘I think stem cell therapy is the most promising …’ can easily become ‘Stem cell therapy is the most promising … (plus evidence and/or citation)’. The use of I think as a scaffolding phrase shouldn’t necessarily be avoided. Since the point of writing is to convey your thoughts, it may make sense to use that phrase to help yourself discover what you think. Once you’ve got that clarity, you can remove it to avoid wordiness.

A third potential concern with the first person is that its use can become monotonous. Using the first person at the beginning of multiple sentences may distract the reader from what you are saying. ‘In this chapter, I will discuss …’ can be a strong opening for a roadmap. However, you will probably want to avoid following this opening with a long series of I-statements. You might choose instead to explain the stages of your paper with a sequence of impersonal formulations–starting with ‘the first step will be …’–before returning to the first person for a more emphatic closing: ‘Overall, I will develop …’. 

Any discussion of the authorial first person also needs to consider the use of I and we. When we is simply the plural form of I–referring to multiple authors–then everything said here holds true. To be clear, if there is only one of you, don’t refer to yourself as we. Some writers wonder if we is somehow more formal than I, but that is a misapprehension. We can also be used as an engagement strategy: ‘As we will see below, …’. This usage is based on the conceit that the author and the reader are on a journey together; this strategy is only common in some fields. In any discipline, the use of we can become problematic when it is used to refer to an unspecified group of stakeholders: ‘Over recent years, we have learned more about …’. Who is the we here? That degree of presumption or imprecision can be unhelpful. If the context doesn’t make the referent clear, you may wish to replace the we with the actual group in question, possibly with relevant evidence or citations.

Despite being the source of some anxiety, the authorial first person is an integral feature of most academic writing. It can take time to figure out the nuances of its role in your writing; as a crucial first step, make sure that you are not relying on unverified prohibitions against its use. To build your confidence in your use of the authorial first person, you may wish to run a search on I/we in your text during your revision process. Doing so will show you what your patterns are: whether your use has been monotonous at any point; whether you have underused the first person at crucial junctures in your introduction and conclusion; whether you have relied too heavily on I think as a scaffolding phrase; whether you have been imprecise in your use of I and we. When reviewing your usage, keep in mind what you have learned about current disciplinary practices. Embracing the careful use of the first person is a crucial developmental stage in academic writing; the end result of this embrace is writing that embodies current disciplinary norms and evinces a strong authorial presence.

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