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.

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