Chapter 6-5-2: Advice on Using First Person Pronouns and Personal Experience in Academic Writing
Can I use “I” in my academic paper?
That’s a question that I hear every semester from students.
I would like to offer readers the opportunity to receive a “short version” on this topic, and then a more thorough version for those that are interested. The Writing Center At UNC Chapel Hill offers a detailed explanation, immediately below my own.
Generally, students should avoid using “I” in their paper. The fact that you are the author of your paper means that it is understood that everything in the document is your opinion.
However, it is considered acceptable to use “I” when relating a personal experience (something an author has personally observed or witnessed). This type of dialogue normally occurs when the writer is attempting to clarify evidence that was just presented to the reader. For example, the paper might offer some credible evidence from a reliable source. Then, in order to make it clear to readers how this evidence connects with a particular argument, the author might relate a personal anecdote.
Note that, unless the author is an expert on a topic, relating personal experience as “proof” of something is generally considered weaker than providing information that was discovered through traditional research methods. It is best to use anecdotal evidence to illustrate a point or an example—avoid hinging an entire argument on this type of evidence (unless no other evidence is at hand).
Yet another time when the “I” is acceptable is when the the author himself has created new information—a synthesis, for example—or when they’ve created something new—for example, a discovery or a formula. Also, if the author is in some way an “expert” on something, they can have recourse to the “I” at times.
This handout is about determining when to use first person pronouns (“I”, “we,” “me,” “us,” “my,” and “our”) and personal experience in academic writing. “First person” and “personal experience” might sound like two ways of saying the same thing, but first person and personal experience can work in very different ways in your writing. You might choose to use “I” but not make any reference to your individual experiences in a particular paper. Or you might include a brief description of an experience that could help illustrate a point you’re making without ever using the word “I.” So whether or not you should use first person and personal experience are really two separate questions, both of which this handout addresses. It also offers some alternatives if you decide that either “I” or personal experience isn’t appropriate for your project. If you’ve decided that you do want to use one of them, this handout offers some ideas about how to do so effectively, because in many cases using one or the other might strengthen your writing.
Students often arrive at college with strict lists of writing rules in mind. Often these are rather strict lists of absolutes, including rules both stated and unstated:
Each essay should have exactly five paragraphs.
Don’t begin a sentence with “and” or “because.”
Never include personal opinion.
Never use “I” in essays.
We get these ideas primarily from teachers and other students. Often these ideas are derived from good advice but have been turned into unnecessarily strict rules in our minds. The problem is that overly strict rules about writing can prevent us, as writers, from being flexible enough to learn to adapt to the writing styles of different fields, ranging from the sciences to the humanities, and different kinds of writing projects, ranging from reviews to research.
So when it suits your purpose as a scholar, you will probably need to break some of the old rules, particularly the rules that prohibit first person pronouns and personal experience. Although there are certainly some instructors who think that these rules should be followed (so it is a good idea to ask directly), many instructors in all kinds of fields are finding reason to depart from these rules. Avoiding “I” can lead to awkwardness and vagueness, whereas using it in your writing can improve style and clarity. Using personal experience, when relevant, can add concreteness and even authority to writing that might otherwise be vague and impersonal.
Because college writing situations vary widely in terms of stylistic conventions, tone, audience, and purpose, the trick is deciphering the conventions of your writing context and determining how your purpose and audience affect the way you write. The rest of this handout is devoted to strategies for figuring out when to use “I” and personal experience.
EFFECTIVE USES OF “I”:
In many cases, using the first person pronoun can improve your writing, by offering the following benefits:
Assertiveness: In some cases you might wish to emphasize agency (who is doing what), as for instance if you need to point out how valuable your particular project is to an academic discipline or to claim your unique perspective or argument.
Clarity: Because trying to avoid the first person can lead to awkward constructions and vagueness, using the first person can improve your writing style.
Positioning yourself in the essay: In some projects, you need to explain how your research or ideas build on or depart from the work of others, in which case you’ll need to say “I,” “we,” “my,” or “our”; if you wish to claim some kind of authority on the topic, first person may help you do so.
DETERMINING WHETHER TO USE “I” ACCORDING TO THE CONVENTIONS OF THE HUMANITIES
Which fields allow “I”? The rules for this are changing, so it’s always best to ask your instructor if you’re not sure about using first person. But here are some general guidelines.
The purpose of writing in the humanities is generally to offer your own analysis of language, ideas, or a work of art. Writers in these fields tend to value assertiveness and to emphasize agency (who’s doing what), so the first person is often—but not always—appropriate. Sometimes writers use the first person in a less effective way, preceding an assertion with “I think,” “I feel,” or “I believe” as if such a phrase could replace a real defense of an argument. While your audience is generally interested in your perspective in the humanities fields, readers do expect you to fully argue, support, and illustrate your assertions. Personal belief or opinion is generally not sufficient in itself; you will need evidence of some kind to convince your reader.
A note on the second person “you”:
In situations where your intention is to sound conversational and friendly because it suits your purpose, as it does in this handout intended to offer helpful advice, or in a letter or speech, “you” might help to create just the sense of familiarity you’re after. But in most academic writing situations, “you” sounds overly conversational, as for instance in a claim like “when you read the poem ‘The Wasteland,’ you feel a sense of emptiness.” In this case, the “you” sounds overly conversational. The statement would read better as “The poem ‘The Wasteland’ creates a sense of emptiness.” Academic writers almost always use alternatives to the second person pronoun, such as “one,” “the reader,” or “people.”
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE IN ACADEMIC WRITING
The question of whether personal experience has a place in academic writing depends on context and purpose. In papers that seek to analyze an objective principle or data as in science papers, or in papers for a field that explicitly tries to minimize the effect of the researcher’s presence such as anthropology, personal experience would probably distract from your purpose. But sometimes you might need to explicitly situate your position as researcher in relation to your subject of study. Or if your purpose is to present your individual response to a work of art, to offer examples of how an idea or theory might apply to life, or to use experience as evidence or a demonstration of an abstract principle, personal experience might have a legitimate role to play in your academic writing. Using personal experience effectively usually means keeping it in the service of your argument, as opposed to letting it become an end in itself or take over the paper.
It’s also usually best to keep your real or hypothetical stories brief, but they can strengthen arguments in need of concrete illustrations or even just a little more vitality.
Here are some examples of effective ways to incorporate personal experience in academic writing:
Anecdotes: In some cases, brief examples of experiences you’ve had or witnessed may serve as useful illustrations of a point you’re arguing or a theory you’re evaluating. For instance, in philosophical arguments, writers often use a real or hypothetical situation to illustrate abstract ideas and principles.
References to your own experience can explain your interest in an issue or even help to establish your authority on a topic.
Some specific writing situations, such as application essays, explicitly call for discussion of personal experience.
Writing projects in English, Literature, Music, Fine Arts, and Film can sometimes benefit from the inclusion of personal experience, as long as it isn’t tangential. For instance, your annoyance over your roommate’s habits might not add much to an analysis of “Citizen Kane.” However, if you’re writing about Ridley Scott’s treatment of relationships between women in the movie “Thelma and Louise,” some reference your own observations about these relationships might be relevant if it adds to your analysis of the film. Personal experience can be especially appropriate in a response paper, or in any kind of assignment that asks about your experience of the work as a reader or viewer. Some film and literature scholars are interested in how a film or literary text is received by different audiences, so a discussion of how a particular viewer or reader experiences or identifies with the piece would probably be appropriate.