How NOT to Write: Use of the First Person–“Look Ma! No Brains!”

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

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 First person–you either love it or you hate it.  That seems to be true no matter where you find it.  It can be incredibly effective, laughably narcissistic, or some strange combination of the two.  It is a literary sin (in formal prose) that I have been encountering more and more of late in my classes.  While there are certainly places in fiction for the first person, it really serves no particular purpose in academic writing.*  Even in fiction, its use is fraught with more danger than you might think.  Nothing says “Look at me!” to worse effect than using it.

The problem with first person (“I think…”, “In my opinion…”) in general is that it adds nothing to what we are saying.  The only reason that we use it is to assume ownership of something–an idea, a statement, a bit of research, etc.  It serves no purpose in my formal prose (or yours) for a simple reason:  my name is on the front of the freaking paperOf course the ideas belong to me, and everyone will already know that unless I tell them differently through the use of another author’s name, quotation marks, and references.  So, by using the first person to doubly mention that this really  is my idea/wording/etc. I’m not telling any reasonable reader something that he or she doesn’t already know.  In fact, in a very real way, I’m treating him or her like an infant.

I say the use of first person is fraught with peril because what it often does communicate isn’t particularly positive.  Constantly referencing ourselves in an academic paper makes it appear as if we think the things we put down are important simply because we thought them!  It takes the focus off the argument and puts it on the author.  That kind of self-centered vibe rubs many people the wrong way, myself included.  Also, there are still a number of the old school editors and professors out there who react very negatively to its use.

Then there is a conceptual issue to think of:  In good academic writing, nothing is “proved” simply because a particular person says it.  Its truth is demonstrated by the evidence we have assembled.  It would be no more (or less) true if someone else said it first.  In that sense, I, as the author, am completely superfluous to the basic veracity of the point.  If that is so, why insert myself into the situation at all?

So, nothing to gain, plenty to lose.  I can think of no good reason for using it in formal, academic writing.  Use of the first person in formal writing is generally a mark of weaker writing styles and/or bigger egos.

How best to avoid it?  I tell my students that part is simple–just argue your case and let your evidence do the work.  Most of us, when we’re talking to a friend, a teacher, a professor, making a speech, etc. don’t feel the need to constantly remind our audience that it really is us talking.  We just state things as we see them, and move on.

Obviously, much of that doesn’t apply in fiction.  There is very much a niche for first person there–even if it is still a subject that evokes strong emotions.  Note though that most often the first person is not used to point to the author.  It usually refers to a character.  The first person allows the author–and therefore the readers–to see the story directly through a characters eyes and to therefore develop their personalites to a deeper degree.  The Hunger Games or The Desden Files are popular examples of this approach.

I think the underlying principle is the same in both cases:  The author needs to get out of the way and let the story/evidence speak for itself.  Very few of us read an author because of who that author is–for their personal tastes, political beliefs, etc.  We read particular authors because we are looking to hear more of the same stories and characters they create.  The same is true of music and musicians.  I don’t listen to Bruce Hornsby or Loreena McKinnett because I know and love them as individuals.  I don’t know either one of them at all and I probably never will.  I love their music and I can appreciate it quite apart from who they are.

The elephant in the room I have so far ignored is when the author becomes a character in the book itself.  (Even here, though, it often isn’t the real author, but a characterization of some kind or other.) Done well, that is an excellent way to insert yourself (or a semblance of yourself) into the book without getting in the way.  Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a prime example of this.

Consistency is what matters, I think, with the first person, in academia and in fiction.  Consistently avoid it in the former, and consistently apply it, if you want to use it, in the latter.  In either case, take care.

Next Week:  The most important point of view–the reader’s!

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*And before anyone decides to mention it, first person in narratives like this is just fine.  I’m blogging, and therefore my personality will show through.  It’s all about context and audience!  🙂

More in the How NOT to Write series: