Just say “I”: Using the first person in academic writing

I’ve noticed something in my writing, as well as in others’ writing. We academics really, really don’t like to use the word “I.”

It just seems wrong, somehow, even though most major style manuals, including the Chicago Manual of Style, sanction use of the first person in academic prose. When I took an introductory writing course in my first semester at college, I was scandalized when my professor told us we could use “I” in our papers. It went against years of training from high school English teachers. But he was insistent, and so I started using the first person.

It was liberating. Instead of having to come up with contortions of syntax, I could say, “I will argue…” Much simpler, and simpler is usually better where writing is concerned.

But in graduate school a professor I respect greatly told me that “I” wasn’t allowed in our discipline. I started to be more hesitant to write in the first person.

That was a mistake. Although it’s certainly possible to write a good or great academic paper without using “I,” and there is always a danger of overusing the first person, why avoid it unnecessarily? This is especially true because substitutions to “I” often result in overly convoluted prose.

Far worse than “I,” in my humble opinion, is the generic “we” that can creep into academic writing. I’m not talking about “we” as in “we, the joint authors of this publication.” That’s the equivalent of using “I.” The problem comes when “we” is used in a vague sort of way, as in “by looking at the prologue of The Canterbury Tales, we see that…” No. We, author and reader, do not see anything. You, the author, are going to explain something to us, and if you’re going to do that isn’t it much better to use a pronoun that accurately reflects the subject?

While every discipline has its own style and I can’t speak on all of them, in my own discipline it’s just not the case that writing in the first person is universally verboten. Many of the greatest scholarly works within my own field (nineteenth and twentieth century U.S. history) make liberal use of first person narration. The introductions to William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels, for instance, include highly personal narratives in which each historian discusses his relationship to the book’s subject. While both of these works would be great studies of history even without these personal touches, the first person narration does add poignancy and memorability to the historians’ arguments.

Professors Cronon and Kelley’s endorsement of the first person is good enough for me.

Academic writing tips from William Zinsser

On Writing Well

As I’ve continued to revise my dissertation over the past week, I’ve also been reading William Zinsser’s advice on writing nonfiction. I actually wish I had read On Writing Well before I started to write, but it’s better to have found Zinsser late rather than never.

Writing isn’t something we discuss much in graduate school, and in fact many of Zinsser’s recommendations challenge some of the unspoken rules of scholarly writing. But the general principles Zinsser espouses–clarity, simplicity, and efficiency–are good ones for any academic writer to embrace.

Here’s a partial summation of the suggestions I think are most useful. I’ve used my own words here, not Zinsser’s, since I’m writing this for myself as much as for anyone else.

Writing principles to live by:

-The purpose of a piece of writing is not to demonstrate how much you know. The purpose is to explain a subject with clarity and precision, provoking readers’ interest.

-It’s okay to say “I.” The first person is a useful tool. Even in disciplines where it is not “allowed” to write in the first person, it’s helpful to write a first draft utilizing the first person.

-It’s okay to use the same words repeatedly, especially to describe the same concepts. If word variation is getting in the way of clarity, it can and should be jettisoned. Clarity is always more important. Similarly, it’s fine to use simple words. SAT vocabulary words aren’t inherently better.

-The human element is most important for most types of writing. For those of us who write about people, people should remain centralized throughout a piece of writing. This means using specific nouns rather than general concepts whenever possible. (i.e. Instead of, “There are many emotions attached to nationalism,” “People attach many emotions to their national identifications.”)

-In the interest of clarity, statements should be posed definitively. While we in academia tend to cling to safe, hedging words such as “possibly” and “somewhat,” such qualifiers aren’t always necessary and can cause meaning to become muddled.

-Passion is a writer’s friend. Those of us in academia chose our subjects because they excite us, yet we often adapt a detached tone in the interest of being “scholarly.” But all of the best writers, scholarly writers included, show their passion for their subjects through their writing.

These are only some of the gems I picked up from Zinsser; I recommend reading the book for yourself. Unlike many other books on writing, it really is more liberating than prescriptive.

Selecting the right journal for your article

Among the many challenges facing young scholars seeking to publish is a basic question: where to submit your work?

This can be especially difficult for scholars whose work is interdisciplinary or spans multiple fields within the same discipline. To take myself as an example, I work in the history of women and gender, history of medicine, and U.S. history in transnational perspective. Any one of my dissertation chapters will likely touch on two or three of those subfields, at the very least.

On the one hand, this is a very good thing from a publications standpoint. There are a lot of journals potentially interested in publishing my work. But conversely, figuring out which journal to target becomes all the more complicated. I’ve learned a few things to simplify the process. The first and most important guideline in choosing a journal is to forget about what subjects your article is about, at least temporarily. Interesting and original research often covers many subjects. So what an article is about in and of itself can’t determine where you submit an article.

Consider the larger intellectual debates to which your work contributes. Try to identify a distinctive cohort of scholars that may find your work significant. Does this group contain scholars of numerous disciplines? Are all of these interested readers in the same general subfield, or might the article attract wider interest across an entire discipline? What kinds of methodological approaches does this group tend to favor?

Once you have a candidate, read the journal’s “about” section carefully. Look through recent issues to get a sense for what debates the journal considers important. Try to read or at least skim a few articles. Note that while an unusual topic is not necessarily a death sentence to your article’s chances, as some journals may welcome the opportunity to publish material related to an underrepresented subject, you do need to make sure that there are, at the very least, thematic or methodological connections.

After you’ve decided on a journal where you will submit your work, write and revise with that journal and its aims specifically in mind. These are some general questions to help you focus:

-Who is the audience of this journal?

-What issue of broad concern to this audience am I writing about?

-What can my work contribute to scholars’ understanding of this issue?

You might even want to write out your answers to these questions. Print it out and place it by your workspace. When you find yourself lost or on a tangent, reread what you wrote to get yourself back on track.

Knowing and practicing these principles should make the publication process, if not quite felicitous, then at the very least less headache-inducing.

Break the rules: write out of order

Let’s start at the very beginning.

A very good place to start.

–“Do Re Me,” The Sound of Music

In writing, the beginning often is a very good place to start, as Maria sings in The Sound of Music. But it’s a myth that the beginning is the only place to start writing.

Introductions can be daunting. It’s common to feel pressure to write a perfect introduction that will set up the rest of your paper in an eloquent delineation of all the arguments you plan to advance. Yet before you write out those arguments in full, you may not be prepared to write that amazing introduction that you have in mind.

If you find yourself staring at a blank or near-blank introductory section, it’s okay to move on. Maybe you’re itching to write section three instead—in which case I strongly advise you to do so. Writing something, anything, is always better than not writing.

The ability to write out of order easily is one reason why I enjoy Scrivener so much, but this method can be adapted to pretty much any word processing program. In Scrivener, you can create sections, title them, and maybe write a few notes to yourself if you’re so inclined. Then you can start working in what will ultimately be the middle of the paper. If you’re working with a more traditional word processing program, you can do the same thing by making placeholders in your document, which may look something like this:


-Begin with quote from Source 1

-Relate to theme of subjectivity in experiencing art

-Introduce the following arguments:

Viewing art is a deeply personal experience related to affect and emotions. However, social expectations mediate experiences of viewing art.

  1. Viewing art is a deeply personal experience related to affect and emotions. However, social expectations mediate experiences of viewing art.
  2. During the Renaissance, people began to experience art in a new way.]]

Alternatively, it’s okay if your placeholder just says something like, “introduction goes here.” The important part is that you’re giving your work scaffolding even as you consciously decide to write out of order for purposes of getting something down on paper.

I find it helpful to make placeholders for all sections that I plan to write, not just the introduction. Some of these sections may later merge, or be dropped altogether, but doing this allows me to situate each part of writing within a larger organization. I usually outline the entire chapter within Scrivener before writing anything.

Then, if I want to, I start writing in the middle.