How NOT to Write: Use of the First Person–“Look Ma! No Brains!”

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!


 First person–you either love it or you hate it.  That seems to be true no matter where you find it.  It can be incredibly effective, laughably narcissistic, or some strange combination of the two.  It is a literary sin (in formal prose) that I have been encountering more and more of late in my classes.  While there are certainly places in fiction for the first person, it really serves no particular purpose in academic writing.*  Even in fiction, its use is fraught with more danger than you might think.  Nothing says “Look at me!” to worse effect than using it.

The problem with first person (“I think…”, “In my opinion…”) in general is that it adds nothing to what we are saying.  The only reason that we use it is to assume ownership of something–an idea, a statement, a bit of research, etc.  It serves no purpose in my formal prose (or yours) for a simple reason:  my name is on the front of the freaking paperOf course the ideas belong to me, and everyone will already know that unless I tell them differently through the use of another author’s name, quotation marks, and references.  So, by using the first person to doubly mention that this really  is my idea/wording/etc. I’m not telling any reasonable reader something that he or she doesn’t already know.  In fact, in a very real way, I’m treating him or her like an infant.

I say the use of first person is fraught with peril because what it often does communicate isn’t particularly positive.  Constantly referencing ourselves in an academic paper makes it appear as if we think the things we put down are important simply because we thought them!  It takes the focus off the argument and puts it on the author.  That kind of self-centered vibe rubs many people the wrong way, myself included.  Also, there are still a number of the old school editors and professors out there who react very negatively to its use.

Then there is a conceptual issue to think of:  In good academic writing, nothing is “proved” simply because a particular person says it.  Its truth is demonstrated by the evidence we have assembled.  It would be no more (or less) true if someone else said it first.  In that sense, I, as the author, am completely superfluous to the basic veracity of the point.  If that is so, why insert myself into the situation at all?

So, nothing to gain, plenty to lose.  I can think of no good reason for using it in formal, academic writing.  Use of the first person in formal writing is generally a mark of weaker writing styles and/or bigger egos.

How best to avoid it?  I tell my students that part is simple–just argue your case and let your evidence do the work.  Most of us, when we’re talking to a friend, a teacher, a professor, making a speech, etc. don’t feel the need to constantly remind our audience that it really is us talking.  We just state things as we see them, and move on.

Obviously, much of that doesn’t apply in fiction.  There is very much a niche for first person there–even if it is still a subject that evokes strong emotions.  Note though that most often the first person is not used to point to the author.  It usually refers to a character.  The first person allows the author–and therefore the readers–to see the story directly through a characters eyes and to therefore develop their personalites to a deeper degree.  The Hunger Games or The Desden Files are popular examples of this approach.

I think the underlying principle is the same in both cases:  The author needs to get out of the way and let the story/evidence speak for itself.  Very few of us read an author because of who that author is–for their personal tastes, political beliefs, etc.  We read particular authors because we are looking to hear more of the same stories and characters they create.  The same is true of music and musicians.  I don’t listen to Bruce Hornsby or Loreena McKinnett because I know and love them as individuals.  I don’t know either one of them at all and I probably never will.  I love their music and I can appreciate it quite apart from who they are.

The elephant in the room I have so far ignored is when the author becomes a character in the book itself.  (Even here, though, it often isn’t the real author, but a characterization of some kind or other.) Done well, that is an excellent way to insert yourself (or a semblance of yourself) into the book without getting in the way.  Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a prime example of this.

Consistency is what matters, I think, with the first person, in academia and in fiction.  Consistently avoid it in the former, and consistently apply it, if you want to use it, in the latter.  In either case, take care.

Next Week:  The most important point of view–the reader’s!


*And before anyone decides to mention it, first person in narratives like this is just fine.  I’m blogging, and therefore my personality will show through.  It’s all about context and audience!  🙂

More in the How NOT to Write series:


3 thoughts on “How NOT to Write: Use of the First Person–“Look Ma! No Brains!”

  1. I dislike first person narrative in fiction, because usually it forces both the author and the reader to be the main character. It is very rare that it is done well over an entire novel, though if the novel is good enough I will suffer through.

    I don’t think that it necessarily helps to develope the characters to a deeper degree, what helps with that is being able to be inside your characters’ heads, but I don’t think you need to write in first person for that. As always it really depends on the quality of the writer and how well they use first person narrative as a tool. Right now first person just seems like a popular trend, so perhaps not as many people are using it as well as they should, simply because it is not a good medium for them. (I am thinking specifically of the Hunger Games in my last sentance.)

  2. Hm, this is interesting to me because I have been a hardcore anti-first person-in-academia writer for many years (even though it is, ironically, my favorite in fiction) and had to fight hard to get students to follow my lead. However, lately I have begun to appreciate a place for it in academic writing when, as with fiction, it is used effectively. For instance, I often read articles that are written with “I” and “we” and barely even notice them, which to me is a good sign. They flow naturally with the paper and actually help streamline thoughts rather than doing the passive voice dance-around-the-phrase that would have been needed to make it a third person statement.

    Now, I have found that any first person statement can be turned into a third person one, and even forced into active voice if you are very skilled, but I have begun to question the need for it all the time when a straightforward first-person statement will do the trick. Perhaps it’s possible to assume things about first person in academia that aren’t always true. Perhaps, if you first learn to be an effective third person writer, you can then take cautious steps into applying first person when useful and not come across as overbearing.

    At any rate, my supervisor encourages it over the awkward dance-around-the-subject sentences that I was apparently using, so I’m seeing where it takes me. My dissertation is a lot about my reaction against a certain type of text analysis and a suggestion of a revised method of approaching the literature, so often that clarification of my intention has been useful.

  3. Excellent points, Brian.

    Few writers use first person narration effectively in fiction, but some do–Poe, for example. It goes over better in a short story than a novel.

    In academic prose, we have to just ban first person for undergraduate students. They have to prove they can write competently in third person first; then when they graduate they can be given permission to used first person rarely and judiciously, in contexts where it is called for. This is true because they are increasingly addicted to first person, as Brian pointed out, and it reinforces their false beliefs that everything is all about them and that writing is primarily self expression. They need to go cold turkey; it’s the only cure for their addiction. I tell them to pretend I am not their friend or even their professor but the general reader who just picked their essay in a magazine up off the back of the toilet and doesn’t know them from Adam. That reader does not give a flip about how they feel or even what they think. He wants to know what the evidence indicates. (Note that I just gave an example of a rare occasion when first person is justified. When that happens, just go for it. Don’t use an awkward phrase like “the present writer,” because that calls attention to itself even more than the one “I” sentence in the paper would have.)

    Translating first person into third risks creating awkward circumlocutions–but they are not inherent in third person. Write in third person in the first place, think in third person, use first person naturally on the rare occasion when you need it, and you will avoid that problem.

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