Many times, high school students are told not to use first person (“I,” “we,” “my,” “us,” and so forth) in their essays. As a college student, you should realize that this is a rule that can and should be broken—at the right time, of course.
By now, you’ve probably written a personal essay, memoir, or narrative that used first person. After all, how could you write a personal essay about yourself, for instance, without using the dreaded “I” word?
However, academic essays differ from personal essays; they are typically researched and use a formal tone. Because of these differences, when students write an academic essay, they quickly shy away from first person because of what they have been told in high school or because they believe that first person feels too informal for an intellectual, researched text. Yet while first person can definitely be overused in academic essays (which is likely why your teachers tell you not to use it), there are moments in a paper when it is not only appropriate, but it is actually effective and/or persuasive to use first person. The following are a few instances in which it is appropriate to use first person in an academic essay:
- Including a personal anecdote: You have more than likely been told that you need a strong “hook” to draw your readers in during an introduction. Sometimes, the best hook is a personal anecdote, or a short amusing story about yourself. In this situation, it would seem unnatural not to use first-person pronouns such as “I” and “myself.” Your readers will appreciate the personal touch and will want to keep reading! (For more information about incorporating personal anecdotes into your writing, see "Employing Narrative in an Essay.")
- Establishing your credibility (ethos): Ethos is a term stemming back to Ancient Greece that essentially means “character” in the sense of trustworthiness or credibility. A writer can establish her ethos by convincing the reader that she is trustworthy source. Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to get personal—tell the reader a little bit about yourself. (For more information about ethos, see "Ethos.")
For instance, let’s say you are writing an essay arguing that dance is a sport. Using the occasional personal pronoun to let your audience know that you, in fact, are a classically trained dancer—and have the muscles and scars to prove it—goes a long way in establishing your credibility and proving your argument. And this use of first person will not distract or annoy your readers because it is purposeful.
- Clarifying passive constructions: Often, when writers try to avoid using first person in essays, they end up creating confusing, passive sentences.
For instance, let’s say I am writing an essay about different word processing technologies, and I want to make the point that I am using Microsoft Word to write this essay. If I tried to avoid first-person pronouns, my sentence might read: “Right now, this essay is being written in Microsoft Word.” While this sentence is not wrong, it is what we call passive—the subject of the sentence is being acted upon because there is no one performing the action. To most people, this sentence sounds better: “Right now, I am writing this essay in Microsoft Word.” Do you see the difference? In this case, using first person makes your writing clearer.
- Stating your position in relation to others: Sometimes, especially in an argumentative essay, it is necessary to state your opinion on the topic. Readers want to know where you stand, and it is sometimes helpful to assert yourself by putting your own opinions into the essay. You can imagine the passive sentences (see above) that might occur if you try to state your argument without using the word “I.” The key here is to use first person sparingly. Use personal pronouns enough to get your point across clearly without inundating your readers with this language.
Now, the above list is certainly not exhaustive. The best thing to do is to use your good judgment, and you can always check with your instructor if you are unsure of his or her perspective on the issue. Ultimately, if you feel that using first person has a purpose or will have a strategic effect on your audience, then it is probably fine to use first-person pronouns. Just be sure not to overuse this language, at the risk of sounding narcissistic, self-centered, or unaware of others’ opinions on a topic.
The First Person
Use the First Person
As with any genre of writing it is important to grab the reader’s attention from the outset, and discussion texts are no different. Fortunately, there are a number of tried and tested methods of achieving this. Here are a few that may be suitable openers for your students’ discussion writing:
● open with a quotation relevant to the topic being addressed. A well-chosen quotation can grab the attention of even the most distracted of reader and compel them to read more!
● a surprising fact is another great way to grab the reader’s attention and illuminate the topic that is to be discussed. Not only is it engaging, but informative too!
● a joke. Everyone loves a laugh and a joke can provide an excellent in to the student’s writing. But, encourage your students to be careful here, the suitability of a humorous opening will largely depend on the topic being discussed. As jokes may not always be appropriate to the material they must be used wisely.
In writing a balanced argument, it is important that students consider the positive and negatives of the issue. The body of the text should be focused on presenting the pros and cons, the for and against arguments, relating to the central issue. This is why the oral starter activities can be so useful as pre-writing exercises.
After the student has laid out the topic in their introduction by providing the necessary background information, it is time for the student to consider laying out the case for the argument.
The use of time connectives is a great way for students to organize their information. Adverbs of time, such as firstly, secondly, next, then etc and phrases such as, in addition to, therefore etc can be a great help for students to structure their information chronologically and coherently.
Depending on the length of the text, it is normally recommended that each paragraph consists of a single point. It is important to remind students that in the presentation of a balanced argument they should not express their own bias, or even their own point of view, rather they are laying out both sides of the argument for the reader and should give equal weight to each point of view. When exploring each point, whether for or against, the PEE method can be a helpful way to aid students in structuring their paragraphs and to give their arguments direction:
P = Point (Student makes their point at the beginning of the paragraph)
E = Evidence (Student provides evidence that underpins this point)
E =Explain (Student explores point further and ties back to the central issue)
When the student has considered each of their points for the argument, for example three separate paragraphs each making three separate points for the argument, it is now time to consider, and do the same for, the argument against. The purpose here is to set up an opposition to the previously made points; to offer the other side of the story.
Encourage students here to use words and phrases that set up this contrast, for example, however, contrastingly, on the other hand, etc. Displaying these words and phrases in a word bank can also be a great way to help weaker students to organize their writing.