How to Write in the First Person Effectively

Perhaps you were asked to write something in the first person, and you are looking for a refresher course on what that means — but it’s equally likely that you are already familiar with the terminology but are not sure about the best way to make this type of writing work for you.

You’re in the right place in either case, because we’ll be guiding you through everything you need to know about writing effectively in the first person.

What Is the First Person?

To sum it up succinctly, it’s you — anything you write from your personal perspective, using pronouns that refer to yourself as a unique individual or identify yourself as part of a group of people, is written from a first person perspective.

Most people are aware that writing in the first person involves using “I statements” (“I am 22 years old”, “In this essay I will be exploring why Hobbes’ grim view of human nature is categorically false”, “I donate money to charity regularly”, and so on). The first person does, however, include a much wider range of personal pronouns.

In the singular, meaning you’re talking only about yourself, you have, in addition to “I”:

  • Me
  • My
  • Myself
  • Mine

Plural first person pronouns include we, our, ours, ourselves, and us. In this case, you are either speaking on behalf of a wider group of people (like your workplace or the group of classmates you worked on an assignment with), or about something you experienced together with other people (such as “our car broke down on the way to Oregon”).

When Is it Appropriate to Write in the First Person?

Some situations always call on you to use the first person. They would include penning a personal letter to almost anyone (from a letter of complaint to a store to a letter to the President) and writing a personal statement as part of a college admissions process.

Using the first person in academic writing remains controversial, and most fields have traditionally discouraged it. It is entirely possible that you are currently reading this guide because a professor has explicitly asked you to write an essay in the first person, and you need more information because the very concept clashes with everything you have learned so far.

The academic world is slowly beginning to embrace first person language in academic writing, including research papers, especially in humanities-related fields such as sociology. This is because acknowledging your personal involvement with your research topic provides context.

By avoiding the first person, you are often forced to contort yourself into entirely unnatural language that divorces you from the subject. Embracing first person language can help you avoid awkward sentences such as “data was collected by means of personal interviews”, for instance, which devalues your work if the interview process was an integral part of the way in which you formed your conclusions. This simultaneously helps you avoid over-reliance on the passive voice, which does not make for enjoyable reading.

You can read Duke University’s perspective on first person language in academic writing here for additional background information.

In professional writing, the language you use depends on the context and employer’s policies. These days, it is far from unusual to spot first person language in opinion editorials, for instance, but first person language would not be appropriate in a news report or a white paper. Where in doubt, always check.

Are you writing a book? It is, of course, common — almost universal, in fact — for autobiographies and memoirs to be penned in the first person. Fiction writers, too, occasionally opt for a first person narrative, which becomes the perspective of the protagonist. Choosing to write a novel in the first person is a bold move that will affect the entire flow and feel of the book, but it can absolutely be effective.

Examples of First Person Writing

Were you hoping to see some examples of first person usage in action, in contexts where you may not yet be used to seeing it as well as some where you would expect them? We’re here to help.

  • To lead with a particularly pertinent example, a research paper titled The use of the first person in academic writing: objectivity, language and gatekeeping and written by C Webb contains the sentence: “The same argument can be applied to the ideas I am concerned with in this paper”. (Ironically, the paper’s abstract states that “this paper is written in the first person”.)
  • When writing a personal statement for medical school, it’s common to see first person statements such as “this experience quickly forced me to develop effective time management strategies, and I ultimately sacrificed my interest in football to focus on science”.
  • When writing a personal letter or email, it is natural to use first person statements, such as “I ordered a pair of custom shoes from you four weeks ago, but I have not received them yet”.
  • In an article about the emotional lives of cats, written for the British newspaper The Guardian, the author uses first person language in saying: “According to my search history, in the two years since I became a cat owner I have Googled variations of “cat love me – how do I tell?” and “is my cat happy” 17 times.”

Tips on Using the First Person Effectively in Your Writing

First person language has traditionally been shunned in academic writing because relying on this kind of language comes with the risk of placing subjective opinions, emotions, and experiences above objective scientific observation. Avoiding the first person can have the opposite effect — that of separating you from your subject entirely, which may be undesirable.

Regardless of your aims in writing and your reasons for choosing the first person, these tips will prevent you from falling into common traps that reduce the quality of your writing:

  • Use the first person if you are writing a narrative essay that focuses on your personal experiences, a letter written solely on your own behalf, or a novel in which you truly want your readers to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s perspective.
  • In academic writing, always check before using the first person, as you may lose points otherwise.
  • Academic writing may call for first person language if your own experiences significantly change the way in which you interact with the subject matter, which is most common in the social sciences.
  • In the 21st Century, dry writing devoid of all personality is becoming less popular. First person language can make you appear more relatable, which helps you hold onto the reader’s attention.
  • When writing an article or essay, first person language can also be used to hook the reader — particularly if you have a relevant, entertaining, or compelling anecdote to share.
  • When you are writing in the first person, make very sure not to start nearly every sentence with “I”. It is sloppy and boring to read. First person writing does not mean that every sentence has to refer back to you, either. Don’t forget to describe your environment, too.
  • Ask yourself whether your first person statement adds value to your writing, and also consider the possibility that your choice to use “I statements” could actively reduce the quality of your writing. Only use first person language in cases where it works to improve or clarify your message.

FAQ

How do I use the first person in a narrative essay?

Your essay will be most effective if you do not let your freedom to write in the first person interfere with your ability to pay attention to the world beyond your inner self. Despite the fact that you are writing in the first person, and about your own experiences, no essay can be just about you.

What are some examples of good novels written in the first person?

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace: A Novel by Patrick Cottrell, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro are all compelling examples of novels written in the first person. They each demonstrate how this stylistic choice can allow readers to ride the story out from right within the protagonist’s mind.

How do I know if it is acceptable to use the first person in academic writing?

Simply ask your professor if you are writing a college essay or research paper. Using the first person can cause you to lose points in some cases, so it is always best to check before you take this bold but logical step. Remember that first person language is more accepted in the social sciences than in other academic fields.

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