First Person Pronouns In Essays Are Poems

: Writing an analytic essay requires that you make some sort of argument. The core of this argument is called a thesis. It is your claim, succinctly stated in a single sentence. What do budding literary critics such as yourselves argue about? You make a pervasive, persistent case that a certain thing is true about a piece of literature. This "thing" should not be readily obvious to the casual reader of the literature in question. It is what you draw out of the book or essay, how you interpret it. It is a claim that must be supported by specific evidence from the text. At least once during the course of writing your essay, isolate what you consider to be your thesis. Is your proposition both arguable and reasonable? If it is obvious (i.e. Mary Rowlandson used the Bible for comfort during her captivity) you don’t have an argument. Argument requires analysis (i.e. taking things apart and explaining them). One test that may help is asking yourself what the opposite "side" of your argument would be. A good, complicated thesis (which was proposed by one of your classmates) is that "Although Mary Rowlandson says she often used the Bible as a source of comfort during her captivity, a closer reading of her narrative suggests her faith may have been more troubled by her experience than she lets on." One useful structure for writing thesis statements is the "although" form used above: "Although x seems to be true about this piece of literature, y is in fact more true (or makes our thinking about x more complex)." In this form you present both sides of your argument at once and show which side you’re on. Your job in the paper is to convince your reader to join you. Another way to write an effective thesis statement is to use the form "If we look closely at x (e.g. how Bradford defines freedom) we discover y (that ).

Look for images or metaphors that the author uses consistently. What other sort of pattern can you identify in the text? How do you interpret this pattern so that your reader will understand the book, essay, poem, speech, etc. better?

What philosophical, moral, ethical, etc. ideas is the author advocating or opposing? What are the consequences of accepting the author's argument?

Explain how the work functions as a piece of rhetoric--how does the author attempt to convince his or her reader of something? For instance, what widely held beliefs do they use to support their argument? How do they appeal to emotions, logic…

Re-examine something that the text or most readers take for granted (that Thoreau’s book Walden represents his attempt to escape from society). Question this major premise and see where it takes you

Ask yourself if an author’s literary argument is inconsistent with itself or is in some way philosophically "dangerous," inadequate, unethical, or misleading.

Examine how characters are presented in a story. How do they help the main character to develop? Which characters are trustworthy? Which are not? Why are they presented this way?


: How the parts of the book or essay follow one another; how the parts are assembled to make a whole? Why does the author start where they start, end where they end? What is the logical progression of thought? How might that progression be intended to affect the reader What effect might this progression of ideas have on a generic reader or on a reader from the time period in which the work was written? Does the piece move from the general to the specific or vice versa?

If you could divide the book/essay into sections, units of meaning, what would those sections be? How are they related to each other? Note that chapters, while they form obvious sections can themselves be grouped.

Referring to the text

: In writing analytic papers that address any kind of literature, it is necessary to refer to the text (the specific words on the page of the book) in order to support your argument. This means that you must quote and interpret passages that demonstrate or support your argument. Quotation is usually stronger than paraphrase. Remember also that your purpose in writing an essay is not merely to paraphrase or summarize (repeat) what the author has said, but to make an argument about how the make their point, or how they have said what they have said.


: includes the way an author phrases his or her sentences, the key metaphors used (it’s up to you to explain how these metaphors are used, why these metaphors are appropriate, effective, ineffective, or ambiguous). Is the way a sentence is phrased particularly revealing of the author’s meaning?

Please title your paper and make the title apt and enticing--I LOVE a good title. It puts me in a good mood before I start reading.

Be clear about whether you’re writing about a book, an essay (non-fiction, short prose), a story (short fiction) a poem, a novel (book-length fiction), an autobiography, a narrative (as in Captivity Narratives) etc. Walden is a book comprised of chapters. Each of these chapters could also be called an essay. Within these essays, Thoreau sometimes tells stories. The book itself is not a story, but closer to a narrative, which is non-fiction.

Always go through at least two drafts of you paper. Let your paper sit, preferably for 24 hours between drafts sometime during the process of your writing.


first person pronoun ("I") in your final draft (it’s OK for rough drafts and may help you write).

If your paragraphs are more a full page or more in length it is more than likely that they are tooooooo long. Probably you have too many ideas "in the air" at once. Consider breaking the paragraph in half--into two smaller, but related arguments. Your reader needs a break, needs more structure in order to be able to follow your meaning.

If several of your paragraphs are exceedingly short (4-5 lines), it is likely that you are not developing your ideas thoroughly enough--that you are writing notes rather than analysis. Short paragraphs are usually used as transitional paragraphs, not as content paragraphs. (Short paragraphs can be used in the rhetorical devise of reversal where you lead your reader down a certain path (to show them one side of the argument, the one you are going to oppose) and then turn away from that argument to state the true argument of your paper.)

Employ quotation often.

One quotation per argumentative paragraph is usually necessary. Depending upon the length and complexity of the passage or topic you're dealing with, more quotations may be useful to prevent you from getting too far away from the text. Your quotations combined with your interpretations are your proof. Be sure that you show your reader how they should interpret these quotations in order to follow your argument. (Almost every quotation should be followed by an interpretation, a deeper reading of what is being said and how its being said. This interpretation demonstrates how the quotation supports the claim you're making about it). Pay attention to metaphor, phrasing, tone, alliteration, etc. How is the author saying what they are saying--what does that teach us about the text?

Remember to write directive (sometimes called "topic") sentences for your paragraphs. The first sentence of any paragraph should give your reader an idea of what the paragraph is going to say and how the paragraph will connect to the larger argument. It should have more to do with what you have to say about the materials than what the author him or herself has said.

Transitions between paragraphs

: try to get away from using "The next," "First of all" "Another thing..." to connect your paragraphs. This is the "list" method of structuring a paper--not an integrated, logical approach. A really strong transition makes the logical connection between paragraphs or sections of a paper and gives the reader a sense that you’re building an argument. To make sure you are making a well-connected argument, ask yourself how the last sentence of each paragraph and the first sentence of the next are connected. Each of the sentences within your paragraphs should be related somehow (follow from, refer to, etc.) the one that precedes it, and the one which follows it. This will help the reader follow the flow of your ideas. The order of your paragraphs should reveal a developing argument.

On the most basic level, you should be able to consciously justify the presence and placement of every word in every sentence, every sentence in every paragraph, every paragraph in every essay. To repeat: in revising your papers after the first draft (which is always, inevitably to some degree confused because you are involved in the process of working your ideas out), you should be highly conscious of what you are doing and why you are doing it.






The problem: expressing your ideas in an academic setting

Many of us have been taught not to use the first person, “I,” “my,” “we,” “our” and so forth (and for that matter, the second person, “you”), when writing research papers. First person pronouns and verbs, we were told, suggest that an author may be too close to the subject matter and is mixing opinion with fact, or may even be hiding something. As is frequent with advice about writing, what begins as a reasonable general idea comes to be perceived, incorrectly, as a hard-and-fast rule. In any case, the questions of if and when the first person is appropriate should be part of an author’s broader consideration of the balance of objectivity and subjectivity that a given piece of writing requires.

Initial considerations: the audience and forum

The first thing to consider when deciding whether to be concerned about using the first person is the type of writing that you’re doing. If you are preparing a talk to be delivered before a live audience, use of “we” can help to establish a rapport with the audience, and it will anyway probably feel quite unnatural to avoid all use of “I” (and “you”), regardless of the subject matter. The same is true when the forum for your writing is informal, as often is the case with blog posts (like this one).

The issue can get tricky when writing for academic journals and presses. The first person naturally tends to be used less frequently in the sciences than in the humanities, but editors are coming around to the idea that insistence on the third person can lead to imprecision and even to a kind of false modesty (as can be seen in this quick survey of opinions by experts on scientific writing). This less rigid stance is admitted in the APA, CMA and MLA style guides.

When “we” do science

Sticking with the sciences for the moment, let’s take a look at a couple of abstracts from recent articles:

Wehypothesized that this is due to infrequent or short interactions between S. Typhimurium and Y. enterocolitica… To test these hypotheses, weconstructed an S. Typhimurium strain that synthesizes AHLs to mimic a constant interaction with Y. enterocolitica. [Journal of Bacteriology (2010) 192.1: 29]

In this case, the first-person plural “we” refers accurately to the multiple (in this case, eight) authors: they did the work, and are taking credit for it. The passage would become awkward if the “no first person” rule were enforced:

It washypothesized that this is due to infrequent or short interactions…an S. Typhimurium strain was constructed

Contrast this abstract with one from the Journal of Psychology:

Self-report questionnaires tapping worry, rumination, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) were administered to a clinical sample of 60 patients aged 30–40. … We also analyzed differences of outcome variables within two clinical groups. [Journal of Psychology (2015) 149.8: 866]

Here the study’s two authors have it both ways, which, when juxtaposed, highlight the greater precision of the first person: did the questionnaires administer themselves? No, this work was of course done by the same people who “analyzed the differences”.

Obviously, you will want to consult recent articles from the journal to which you will submit your manuscript. Generally speaking, however, it is permissible, even preferable, to use the first person when describing actions—experiments, surveys, internet searches and so on—actually performed by the author(s) of the article.

When “we” write about the humanities

The humanities allow greater scope for the first person because such work as interpreting a poem or explaining a historical event directly reflects the writers’ opinions: there is no experimental model that would yield an objective explanation for William Blake’s image of the tiger, for example. Let’s look at a couple more recently published articles.

In the following case, the (one) author very properly uses the first person to communicate her own point of view:

Herring suggests that O’Hara thought Lowell’s confessionalism too self-revealing, while I argue on the contrary … I suggest that rather than being “anti-confessional,” both O’Hara and Ginsberg wrote poems that had affinities with the confessional mode. [Journal of Modern Literature (2005) 28.4: 41]

Here the author’s own understanding of her subject is contrasted with that of another scholar; removal of the “I suggest” would give the impression that the author believes that she has had the last word on the subject—and this is never the case in scholarship.

Another common usage in the humanities for the first person plural in particular is to identify the author with the reader of the article. Sometimes this is called the “inclusive we.” Our next example was written by a single author:

The way weread Valerius’ use of Cicero’s text thus informs how wemight understand the genre of his work as a whole. [American Journal of Philology (2013) 134.1: 73]

Here the author, quite properly, positions herself and her audience within the context a community of readers of ancient Latin texts. Again, consider the awkwardness and imprecision if these same ideas would be rendered in the third person:

The way Valerius’ use of Cicero’s text is read thus informs how the genre of his work as a whole might be understood.

Moreover, such phrases as “let us now consider” and “as we shall see” can be very useful for signposting and to effect transitions in the course of an academic article.

This usage is to be distinguished from that of the first person plural for singular, the so-called “royal we” (sometimes called the “exclusive we“), which is now almost universally rejected as old-fashioned and a bit condescending. “This quirk of English grammar is rarely heard today, except in historical context or as a jibe at someone who is too assured of his own power.”

Some workarounds

Since some authors may still be uncomfortable with the first person, and it remains frowned upon in a number of contexts, let’s conclude by considering a few useful workarounds:

passive voice: as can be seen from some of the above examples, a common way to eliminate the first person is to switch to the passive voice. It must be observed that this workaround conflicts with the common, though in part mistaken, directive that one should always use the active voice.

impersonal “one”: Here “one” stands for any hypothetical person who might be interested in the subject matter. For example, “Onemayinfer that both abundant OH groups and negatively charged surfaces of gel-derived silica and titania are important…“; this workaround is nice because it is also gender-neutral.

“this study (article, thesis etc.)”: for example, “thisstudyaimsto identify effective teachers in terms of improved student achievement…”, in which case “this study” simply stands for the author(s). (Avoid entirely referring to yourself as “the author,” even in abstracts.)

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