Early Monday morning when I walked into the classroom, the whiteboard was covered with notes. I started to erase them, then stopped myself, realizing what another instructor had left behind offered an opportunity to return to a topic that we addressed last week: writing in first person.
Under the heading “Tips for formal writing,” the instructor wrote, “(1) No first person.” It’s important to consider that a tip is a piece of advice, not a requirement. Item one in the instructor’s notes does not state that first person cannot be used in formal writing but rather that it is advisable not to use it.
As a response to that piece of advice–and as a supplement to my notes to you last week–I present this second look at first person in formal writing.
While any writing assignment for a college course may be labeled formal, the level of formality will be determined primarily by the genre, or type of writing, required. A literacy narrative, a subgenre of memoir, is an account of a learning experience that is almost always written in first person. Similarly, a semester’s reflection–what you are drafting now–which looks back at your accomplishments and explores their significance, is another type of writing that is almost always written in first person.
In contrast, the second essay you wrote for English 111, the textual analysis, does not need first person. I gave you the option of using it–and I used “our” twice in the concluding paragraph of the sample analysis that I wrote for you–but moving away from “I” and other forms of first person is a good habit to cultivate, especially in writing that does not focus on you. As I wrote in my notes on April 12:
One way to make your writing sound more professional is to limit your use of first person. That doesn’t mean that “I” shouldn’t appear in your prose, but be mindful that if you repeatedly refer to yourself, you may come across as young and self-absorbed. Moving away from “I” shows readers that you understand that your ideas have broader implications.
The authors of A Writer’s Reference offer some of the best advice on choosing the point of view for a college assignment: “Using the I point of view is not grammatically incorrect for college writing. As you review your options, think about your purpose and audience, as well as the genre (type of writing) expected. When in doubt, ask your instructor” (Hacker and Sommers 124).
Consider the three sentences listed below. The first two are variations on one of the sentences in “The Strange Fruit of Sosnowiec,” the sample analysis of Maus that I wrote for you. The third is the sentence as it appears in the introductory paragraph.
In my opinion, that haunting panel and the smaller ones that frame it illustrate the complexity of Spiegelman’s seemingly simple composition. To me, that haunting panel and the smaller ones that frame it illustrate the complexity of Spiegelman’s seemingly simple composition.
- That haunting panel and the smaller ones that frame it illustrate the complexity of Spiegelman’s seemingly simple composition.
The third sentence is not only more succinct, it also demonstrates my understanding of the genre.
An analysis presents a writer’s informed opinion. The appearance of the phrase “in my opinion” in an analysis or any other written argument is a redundancy that weakens the writer’s authority. Redundancies signal to readers that a writer cannot distinguish between what needs to be on the page and what can be omitted without any loss of meaning.
Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Somers. A Writer’s Reference, GTCC 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018.
Lucas, Jane. “ENG 111: Once More, You’ve Got to . . . .” Jane Lucas, 12 Apr. 2021, https://janelucas.com/2021/04/12/eng-111-once-more-youve-got-to/.
—. “ENG 111: The Strange Fruit of Sosnowiec.” Jane Lucas, 2 Apr. 2021, https://janelucas.com/2021/04/02/the-strange-fruit-of-sosnowiec/.