Monday, 17 July 2017

Who Am I? First or Third Person Writing

Writing in the first person, or from the narrator's point of view, has traditionally been frowned upon in academic writing. The reason given is that the writing 'reads' more objectively if told in the third person; as 'the experts'. I have used a segment of Winston Churchill's 1940 speech to illustrate the difference in the image accompanying this post.

I find writing in the third person too arms-length, pompous and woolly. Because of my dislike of it, I advise my students that they may write in either the first or the third person: the choice is theirs. My only proviso is that they choose one standpoint, and remain consistent to it throughout each piece of their assignment work. 

In my view, for an individual researcher, writing the introduction, methodology, and primary data results in the first person makes sense. This is because it is we who are doing this work, who are setting up this experiment, who are interested in finding out "why". Using the first person also can be good in our conclusion, when answering our research question. It completes the circle and brings us back to the introduction of our body of work.

However, as the Literature Review solely synthesises the views of experts, there is less place for the first person in this section. In fact, use of the first person can lead us, as a beginner researcher, astray into the forests of "I think" and "I believe", where the mythical and unevidenced creatures dwell. We mustn't do myths in a literature review: there is only space for facts. Gathering expert evidence and applying it clearly to our concept map is likely to read more objectively if we use the third person in our literature review. However, that does not mean that we can't use "I"; for example, "In summary, I have presented a balanced view of expert opinion on..." works as clearly as "In summary, a balanced view of expert opinion has been presented on". We just need to be sure we have avoided the unevidenced forests.

A growing number of experts feel that writing in the first person is more direct and engaging. Flesch was writing in the 1940s about the potential for 'thickness' - density - in text (1949), so this is not an new issue. Harvard Psychologist, Steven Pinker, has written some very good books on clear writing, and is on the speaking circuit talking about it. Helen Sword shows clearly why the third person is so woolly (2012, p. 37) by showing an example and a clearer, first person alternative:
Here it is demonstrated that the informativeness of a character can be quantified over a historical time scale. This formulation may play a role in resolving these controversies.
[...]“Here we attempt to resolve some of those controversies by demonstrating”— [the authors] would immediately become more energetic, more persuasive, and easier to understand.
Let's write in the first person :-)


Sam

References: 
  • Churchill, W. (4 June 1940). "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech delivered to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 4 July 2017 from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill
  • Flesch, R. F. (1949). The Art of Readable Writing. USA: Harper & Row, Publishers.
  • Pinker, S. (2014). Why Academics Stink at Writing. Chronicle of Higher Education, Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Stink-at/149105
  • Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. USA: Penguin Group.
  • Sword, H. (2012). Stylish Academic Writing. USA: Harvard University Press.

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