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When using first person strengthens college writing (part 1)

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By the time students begin their first college writing course, they've likely been taught to avoid first person in academic papers since writing "'I-less' prose, without first person" simplifies the academic writing process for novices and can make papers sound more objective and formal, according to Kate McKinney Maddalena, author of "I need you to say 'I': Why First Person Is Important in College Writing." However, certain writing situations necessitate the judicious and strategic use of the first-person perspective.

Maddalena contends that researchers are themselves variables in their own experiments in part because they interpret their findings in the discussion and conclusion sections of research reports. The phenomena studied by both physical and social scientists are often so complex that no one study or interpretation of findings can tell the whole story, so researchers use the first person to emphasize that their own interpretations and conclusions are inherently reductionist. Maddalena points out, however, that researchers avoid using first person in the literature review sections of research reports since literature reviews merely summarize and describe the findings of others.

That awareness of the distinction between the thoughts of sources and those of the writers who cite them helps writers know when to use first person. While summarizing or paraphrasing, a neutral, third-person stance is best, but when writers are integrating and discussing evidence from sources for their own purposes, using first person helps to clarify for a reader who is doing the talking. Consider the following hypothetical, adjacent evidence and discussion sentences, for example:

"Jenkins et al (2011) concluded that the loss of anonymity for posters in the online discussion boards observed 'significantly decreased incidences of uncivil discourse, including but not limited to acts of sexist and racist hate speech' (p. 13). However, the loss of anonymity likely had the deleterious effect of silencing dissenting views."

The first sentence is an evidence sentence faithfully conveying the findings of a hypothetical research study of the effects of the loss of anonymity on online discourse whereas the second sentence is a reflection by the writer herself on a possible harmful consequence of that loss of anonymity. Confusingly, the writer's concern reads like a continuation of the researchers' findings. The use of first person in the second sentence can clear up this confusion for readers:

"… I fear, however, that the loss of anonymity likely had the deleterious effect of silencing dissenting views in the discussion boards observed by these researchers."

The use of first person in this example helped the writer distinguish her own concern from the findings themselves, thereby clarifying "who says what" for readers, as Maddalena puts it.

Just as importantly, the use of first person also helped the writer avoid unknowingly misrepresenting her source, thereby committing a type of academic dishonesty known as false citation, which is penalized in the same ways as plagiarism by Princeton and many other universities.

Part 2 of this article will continue reporting on when to use the first person perspective in academic writing.

Kate McKinney Maddalena's article is a chapter in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 1, a peer-reviewed open textbook series for the writing classroom, and is published through Parlor Press.

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