Advice to young (well, mid-PhD) writers

Jack McGowan of Smashing the Window has some very interesting reflections on his experiences in seeing his first paper through to being accepted for publication (congrats!). A timely read for me, as I start to think about doing this myself.

While I'm on the matter of writing advice, here's a chance to use the WordPress Democracy plugin I installed the other day. Near the start of chapter 3, I have a sentence which begins 'In this chapter, I will briefly examine ...' 'I'. 'I'! While I use the personal pronoun all the time on this blog, and have already done so once this sentence, I find that it really cuts against the grain to do so for academic writing. I don't think it is such a sin in writing in the humanities, but I first learned academic writing in the physical sciences, where the personal pronoun, singular or plural, is rare (though not unknown). Instead, one would use phrases like 'the present author' where in less formal writing one would say 'I'. I guess this is to avoid the academic equivalent of breaking the fourth wall. On the other hand, taking ownership of a sentence with a personal pronoun is a good way to avoid the dreaded passive voice.

So, am I worrying too much about this? Does anyone care about this any more? Should I just embrace 'I'? Here's the poll:

Edit: I have removed the poll plugin for security reasons. But here's a screenshot of the poll results as of 22 November 2011:

Person vs person

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13 thoughts on “Advice to young (well, mid-PhD) writers

  1. I have no problem whatsoever with using the personal pronoun in the body of the text – if sparingly. Doing otherwise can now read, bluntly, as rather ’1950s textbook’. One feels rather like one is reading Enid Blyton. We all know you mean ‘you’, so why not just say ‘I’?

    Also, we are, ultimately, subjective interpreters. We strive for maximim objectivity, of course, but we are not ‘disembodied’ scientists (apologies to…eh, ‘embodied’ scientists, but I think you’ll know what I mean).

    However, the present author still adopts the passive voice in any footnotes (just like that), and cites things like ‘Letter to the author, May 3006′. I’m not sure why I use one for the text and one for notes, but that seems to have become my style. No-one has objected thus far.

    Many thanks for the hat tip. And it is great to have a comparison – but even better that you are on the other side of the world, thus posing no daily ‘threat’! How I hate that competitive ‘you’ve only written xxxxx words? But I have written 50,000!’ nonsense. (“Yes, but is it any good?”) Every subject, method of approach and personal way of working is different. Research-wise, everything is going pretty well with me, but next on the agenda is getting my actual written-up word count up to yours. Head down for hard-core writing.

    “Breaking the fourth wall”? On the strength of that you could be alongside me on the undergrad Drama ‘Performance in History’ course which I’ve just started teaching!

  2. It is usually considered to be dependent on the style guidelines of the journal in question I think it depends on who you’re writing for. I used to aim to avoid personal pronouns and use the passive voice because I was under the impression that too many ‘I’s looked egotistical. It still seems to be the done thing in the more traditional/empirical journals.

    More theoretically inclined editors would be likely to take the view that erasing the author creates a false sense of neutrality and objectivity, and that it’s dishonest to gloss over the assumptions and biases which stem from your own identity. A downside of this is the mea culpa paragraph/chapter in which authors beat themselves up for being too white/male/middle class/whatever. It could be argued that this too creates a false sense of honesty, and that it’s a sign of laziness to believe that admitting to self-identify with certain unfashionable groups automatically makes you immune to bias.

    I still have a lot of time for the belief that if your argument is strong and the evidence is sound then any possible ulterior motives should be irrelevant (although I also, perhaps hypocritically, believe that it’s the ulterior motive that makes Holocaust denial especially wrong!). On the other hand, I have a Nietzchean suspicion of everyone’s motives.

    I ultimately take a pragmatic view that articles should conform to the style of the journal that they’re submitted to. You don’t necessarily have to guess perfectly. If the reviewers/editors think your style is inappropriate they should tell you and give you a chance to revise it (I assume — I’ve only submitted one article so far and have been waiting for feedback for over 8 months!).

    One of the benefits of blogging is that I can talk about myself as much as I want and get it all out of my system in order to write bland passive voiced articles.

  3. Dan Todman

    I don’t think that using the first person singular is a terribly good idea stylistically when writing history for either the general or the academic reader. Partly, that’s to do with convention, but more important I think is tone. As Gavin remarks, saying ‘I’ a lot seems egotistical. Worse, it creates a boundary between the author and the reader. I’m trying to cut down, but I do have a tendency to use ‘we’ rather more when I think I’m writing in a more popular register – as in ‘when we look at this text, we should remember…’. It’s more active than the alternative ‘when this text is examined it should be remembered….’. One of my colleagues at QM, Dr Tom Asbridge, once told me that he thinks the biggest challenge for any academic historian writing for a general readership is to display the uncertainty we sometimes feel when we look at sources without losing our authority as historical guides. That’s where this ‘we’ makes a difference.
    I don’t, however, think that avoiding the first person singular means that history should be depersonalised. Far from it. The sparing use of personal interjection or evidence can be a nice surprise to the reader.
    On the other hand, with my PhD supervisor’s hat on, I’d say avoid the first person like the plague for the thesis. If the passive voice seems ugly, find a different way to write the sentence.

  4. Actually, having thought about it further, I must correct myself. I have never used a blatant example of the first person singular. But it is those horribly passive and tortuous constructions which we all recognise and have all tangled ourselves up in from time to time which make MEGO. And Gavin is right: it is our more ‘theory-driven’ colleagues who tend to be more guilty of this. I think Dan’s right – scrap the structure of the sentence and start again. But it hasn’t been a problem which has confronted me very often so far and it has usually sorted itself out – somehow – by the final draft.

  5. Just a technical note: the plug-in actually works through bloglines: I didn’t have to come here to vote, just clicked on it in my RSS reader.

    I don’t have a problem with the pronoun per se, but that’s a weak introduction, which I’m sure you’ll fix along the way.

  6. Chris Williams

    I tell them that they can use it if they want, but ought to do so sparingly. ‘I’ often tends to be used around the sort of material that ought not be in a thesis or an article, or even in an essay, so it’s often a good marker for paragraphs that are about to have ‘True but irrelevant – an unecessary hostage to fortune. Remove.’ written next to them in red ‘evil supervisor’ pen.

    But, ‘I think this for these reasons, and here’s evidence that backs this up’, on the other hand, is a justifiable form of words in my opinion – even in a thesis. This might have something to do with the fact that my university explicitly advises students (well, arts students anyway) not to eschew ‘I’. It’s like a 70s social democracy thang, I reckon.

  7. Btw, Gavin – not just IMHO, but also on the strength of everything I’ve been told at various conferences or training sessions – no feedback whatsoever on a submitted article 8 months later is absolutely ridiculous and inexcusable! Chase ‘em up. Firmly. I’d be very close to the ‘I will have to consider submitting to another journal’ stage.

  8. I do have a tendency to use ‘we’ rather more when I think I’m writing in a more popular register – as in ‘when we look at this text, we should remember…’

    I sympathize with the intention here, but the first person plural often seems downright presumptuous to me in such situations. As Tonto says: “Who’s this ‘we’, kemosabe?”

  9. I often find “we” very patronising, especially when it’s used by newsreaders. “We are sending more text messages than ever…” “Oh, are you really? Are BBC newsreaders sending more text messages than ever? Why should i be interested in that?”. (It also doesn’t help that I’m a militant individualist who tries hard to reject all collective identities.)

    Having said that, I’m just reading Myth and Memory (I’m poor: I had to wait for the paperback!) and I think the use of “we” works really well in that context because it’s all about ideas that are pretty much universal in British culture.

    I don’t remember using “we” at all in my thesis (I’m considering some stylistic analysis to make sure, as it might also make an interesting blog post), but where I use it on my blog it’s usually to refer to things that I consider to be universal, but mostly in negative terms: things that nobody knows; things we think we know that might turn out to be wrong; things that might be beyond human understanding.

    (Jack: my former supervisor says not to worry as journals often do take an age. Also the journal in question has changed publishers so might be undergoing traumatic upheavals.)

  10. Dan Todman

    Yup, that’s the sort of ‘we’ I mean. I agree it can read as patronisingly presumptive, but I have definitely tried to use it to try to avoid patronising readers in the other direction – “‘you’ look at this and think it’s wrong, whereas ‘I’ know what’s right” is a register that _really_ annoys me in ‘popular’ history, and I prefer to acknowledge that I’m bound up in what I study.

  11. Post author

    This has been a really great comment thread, thanks all! I think the take-home message is: use personal pronouncs sparingly, if at all, but in any case very deliberately, not casually. So I’ll go with my original instinct and revert to the disembodied voice. Interestingly, the votes run the other way (10 to 4 in favour of ‘I’), though I admit the survey questions are not the most rigourously designed!


    Getting a paper out now is like money in the bank, I reckon. You can always catch up on the thesis-writing later!

    I don’t think I’d be much use in a course on performance and history, but I used to hang around with student theatre types, so I guess I picked up a few things here and there …


    I don’t have a problem with the pronoun per se, but that’s a weak introduction, which I’m sure you’ll fix along the way.

    Well, that would fit with the rest of the writing I did last week, it was all pretty dire! Hopefully this week’s will be better.

    Chris L:

    Orwell was right — eschew obfuscation! But didn’t he himself use the first-person all the time in his essays? Of course, he wasn’t writing for academics.


    I know what you mean — blogging is very cathartic in that way, you have license to be egotistical (though sometimes I get embarrassed by the number of times I say ‘I’ in a post!) It’s almost mandatory to write in the first person, not just permissible, in fact.

    Being empirically-inclined myself, I have little problem with the idea that evidence+methods overrides motive (and while its the motives of Holocaust deniers which make them despicable, it’s their abuse of evidence which makes them plain wrong). But I think the mea culpa has its place. I’ve mentioned to Dan at Trench Fever before that I thought Mark Connelly’s explanation (in We Can Take It!) of his own relationship, since childhood, to the pleasure culture of WWII. It made me think about my own reasons for studying what I do. Whether that’s actually useful to know (as opposed to just being interesting), I don’t know!

  12. Whether that’s actually useful to know (as opposed to just being interesting), I don’t know!

    The ‘confessional appendix’ has become quite fashionable in studies of imperialism. Both David Cannadine and Niall Ferguson’s books on empire include first-person essays in which they recount their family relationship to the subject. To be honest, charming though they can be, I’m not sure that they really add anything much to the analysis.

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