Personal or impersonal?
To me or not to me?
One of the most frequently asked questions by students is ‘should I use ‘I’ in my writing?’ The answer is that there is no single answer. Some subjects encourage the use of ‘I’ while others actually frown on it or ‘ban’ it because it is thought to show a lack of objectivity. More confusingly, in my experience as a Royal Literary Fellow, even tutors teaching the same subject will have different views about it. Some don’t mind but others will mark students down. So, one way to answer this question is (a) to find out what the convention is in your subject; and (b) ask your tutors what they expect to see in the essays they set you. However, there are other ways to help you think about whether to use ‘I’ or not.
Is it about you? 1: sometimes it’s personal
It can sometimes be appropriate to use personal experience or to use a personal tone in an essay. Imagine you were studying for joint honours in Spanish and Management and that you’d spent a year working abroad in a Spanish business. In your final year, you decide to write a long essay about an aspect of Spanish business practices, let’s say different management styles. Here the personal could well be appropriate. In your introduction, you might announce that the essay is going to use the theories of Professor X and Professor Y and the well-known Model of A; but you could also say that you are going to test some of these ideas against your own experiences. However, you have to judge whether it’s appropriate to do so or not – and, of course, find out whether your tutor will welcome such an approach. As a tutor myself, I like to read an essay that starts: ‘In this essay I will examine’, instead of saying: ‘This essay examines’. It reminds me that there’s a person behind the writing.
Is it about you? 2: personal vs objective
One reason for not using ‘I’ and one reason why many tutors often dislike it is that it shows a lack of objectivity. To return to our analogy of the police detective: he does not say ‘I think X is guilty’ but rather ‘The evidence points to the fact that X is guilty’. Another reason for not using ‘I’ is that once you start it’s very easy to slip into a chatty style; and once you’ve slipped into a chatty style, it’s even easier to start spouting opinions and feelings and prejudices. A typical example would be ‘Professor X’s theory says this but what I think…’. Tutors who set and mark undergraduate essays are less interested in what you think than in what you know, what you can find out. To put that another way, they are more interested in your ability to exercise judgement than spout opinions.
Is it about you? 3: have they asked you what you think?
Another of way of thinking about this is to ask yourself what your essay is about: is it about you and what you think? Or, is it asking you to consider different ideas about globalisation or change management?
Is it about you? 4: personal vs useful
Another question to ask yourself is: does a personal tone add anything useful to my essay? Let’s take a point from an imaginary essay and look at the two styles of writing it. Here’s the academic version:
In the light of Brown’s criticisms of Jones’s theory, the most surprising thing about Brown’s own theory is its marked similarities to Jones’s. Smith (1997, 13-15) even goes so far as to argue that the two models are virtually indistinguishable.
Here’s the personal version:
Having looked at Brown’s criticisms of Jones’s theory, I was really surprised to see how close Brown’s own theory is to Jones’s. Smith 1997, 13-15) even argues that they are almost the same.
Both versions are saying the same thing: they are describing the fact that despite one theorist’s criticism of another, their theories turn out to be virtually the same. Both versions support this discovery by referring to another theorist.
The personal style version actually uses fewer words; and its note of personal discovery – ‘I was really surprised…’ – is actually quite attractive and gives the reader a sense of a living, thinking person behind the words. In terms of the writer’s own development and learning, it’s important that they’ve made this surprising discovery.
However, in terms of accepted and established ways of academic writing, the most important thing is the fact of the similarity between the two theories not the fact that yet another undergraduate has discovered it. The personal style puts greater emphasis on the writer’s surprise than on the similarity of the two theories.
To me or not to me? Another answer
However, there is a way to combine the academic and the personal. Here are two more examples:
The stereotyping of the colonial subject, that which is produced through surveillance, is, therefore, always threatened with lack. It depends upon an illusory relationship of consent which seems to produce ‘in the scopic space’ a relationship between observer and observed.
To defend [my thesis] I need to look at the notion of mimicry and its relationship with mockery. How, in this drama of colonial subjectivity, does mimicry/mockery operate? What is its basis, how is it produced, what are its effects? In discussing these it will be clear that I mark a distance with Bhabha’s characterisation of mimicry…
Both passages come from the same article: ‘Spectaculars: Seamus Heaney and the Limits of Mimicry’ by Tom Herron, published in Irish Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1999. Herron takes issue with an established critic of Heaney’s poetry, David Lloyd, and shows how Lloyd’s viewpoint fails to take account of particular developments in the poetry Heaney has published since Lloyd’s original account was published.
The article is eight and a half pages long. The first three pages summarise both Heaney’s poetry and Lloyd’s view of it. At the end of page three, Herron tells us what he’s going to argue and he does so in a personal style: ‘I am concerned’, ‘I will argue’, ‘I will demonstrate’, ‘I will term’ and ‘I argue’. The next two pages focus on a particular poem as an example of what is new in Heaney’s work. At the end of page five, we get the second passage, again in a personal style. The rest of the article develops the discussion of the Heaney poem from particular theoretical perspectives.
This has two effects. First, we get a good sense of a living, thinking person behind the writing. Second, we get an impression of active thinking as Herron stops to review what he’s said and tell us what he’s going to say next and how he’s going to say it.
All this can be confusing – particularly when Tutor A says it’s OK to use ‘I’ and Tutor B absolutely forbids it. It can also be confusing if you are studying for joint honours and have to keep juggling different conventions. However, to sum up:
i. Find out what the convention is in your subject.
ii. Find out what your tutors want.
iii. Think about why you want to use ‘I’ and if doing so adds anything to your essay.