- Tips & Guides
How To Avoid Using “We,” “You,” And “I” in an Essay
- Posted on October 27, 2022 October 27, 2022
Maintaining a formal voice while writing academic essays and papers is essential to sound objective.
One of the main rules of academic or formal writing is to avoid first-person pronouns like “we,” “you,” and “I.” These words pull focus away from the topic and shift it to the speaker – the opposite of your goal.
While it may seem difficult at first, some tricks can help you avoid personal language and keep a professional tone.
Let’s learn how to avoid using “we” in an essay.
What Is a Personal Pronoun?
Pronouns are words used to refer to a noun indirectly. Examples include “he,” “his,” “her,” and “hers.” Any time you refer to a noun – whether a person, object, or animal – without using its name, you use a pronoun.
Personal pronouns are a type of pronoun. A personal pronoun is a pronoun you use whenever you directly refer to the subject of the sentence.
Take the following short paragraph as an example:
“Mr. Smith told the class yesterday to work on our essays. Mr. Smith also said that Mr. Smith lost Mr. Smith’s laptop in the lunchroom.”
The above sentence contains no pronouns at all. There are three places where you would insert a pronoun, but only two where you would put a personal pronoun. See the revised sentence below:
“Mr. Smith told the class yesterday to work on our essays. He also said that he lost his laptop in the lunchroom.”
“He” is a personal pronoun because we are talking directly about Mr. Smith. “His” is not a personal pronoun (it’s a possessive pronoun) because we are not speaking directly about Mr. Smith. Rather, we are talking about Mr. Smith’s laptop.
If later on you talk about Mr. Smith’s laptop, you may say:
“Mr. Smith found it in his car, not the lunchroom!”
In this case, “it” is a personal pronoun because in this point of view we are making a reference to the laptop directly and not as something owned by Mr. Smith.
Why Avoid Personal Pronouns in Essay Writing
We’re teaching you how to avoid using “I” in writing, but why is this necessary? Academic writing aims to focus on a clear topic, sound objective, and paint the writer as a source of authority. Word choice can significantly impact your success in achieving these goals.
Writing that uses personal pronouns can unintentionally shift the reader’s focus onto the writer, pulling their focus away from the topic at hand.
Personal pronouns may also make your work seem less objective.
One of the most challenging parts of essay writing is learning which words to avoid and how to avoid them. Fortunately, following a few simple tricks, you can master the English Language and write like a pro in no time.
Alternatives To Using Personal Pronouns
How to not use “I” in a paper? What are the alternatives? There are many ways to avoid the use of personal pronouns in academic writing. By shifting your word choice and sentence structure, you can keep the overall meaning of your sentences while re-shaping your tone.
Utilize Passive Voice
In conventional writing, students are taught to avoid the passive voice as much as possible, but it can be an excellent way to avoid first-person pronouns in academic writing.
You can use the passive voice to avoid using pronouns. Take this sentence, for example:
“ We used 150 ml of HCl for the experiment.”
Instead of using “we” and the active voice, you can use a passive voice without a pronoun. The sentence above becomes:
“150 ml of HCl were used for the experiment.”
Using the passive voice removes your team from the experiment and makes your work sound more objective.
Take a Third-Person Perspective
Another answer to “how to avoid using ‘we’ in an essay?” is the use of a third-person perspective. Changing the perspective is a good way to take first-person pronouns out of a sentence. A third-person point of view will not use any first-person pronouns because the information is not given from the speaker’s perspective.
A third-person sentence is spoken entirely about the subject where the speaker is outside of the sentence.
Take a look at the sentence below:
“In this article you will learn about formal writing.”
The perspective in that sentence is second person, and it uses the personal pronoun “you.” You can change this sentence to sound more objective by using third-person pronouns:
“In this article the reader will learn about formal writing.”
The use of a third-person point of view makes the second sentence sound more academic and confident. Second-person pronouns, like those used in the first sentence, sound less formal and objective.
Be Specific With Word Choice
You can avoid first-personal pronouns by choosing your words carefully. Often, you may find that you are inserting unnecessary nouns into your work.
Take the following sentence as an example:
“ My research shows the students did poorly on the test.”
In this case, the first-person pronoun ‘my’ can be entirely cut out from the sentence. It then becomes:
“Research shows the students did poorly on the test.”
The second sentence is more succinct and sounds more authoritative without changing the sentence structure.
You should also make sure to watch out for the improper use of adverbs and nouns. Being careful with your word choice regarding nouns, adverbs, verbs, and adjectives can help mitigate your use of personal pronouns.
“They bravely started the French revolution in 1789.”
While this sentence might be fine in a story about the revolution, an essay or academic piece should only focus on the facts. The world ‘bravely’ is a good indicator that you are inserting unnecessary personal pronouns into your work.
We can revise this sentence into:
“The French revolution started in 1789.”
Avoid adverbs (adjectives that describe verbs), and you will find that you avoid personal pronouns by default.
In academic writing, It is crucial to sound objective and focus on the topic. Using personal pronouns pulls the focus away from the subject and makes writing sound subjective.
Hopefully, this article has helped you learn how to avoid using “we” in an essay.
When working on any formal writing assignment, avoid personal pronouns and informal language as much as possible.
While getting the hang of academic writing, you will likely make some mistakes, so revising is vital. Always double-check for personal pronouns, plagiarism , spelling mistakes, and correctly cited pieces.
You can prevent and correct mistakes using a plagiarism checker at any time, completely for free.
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How to Replace I in Essays: Alternative 3rd Person Pronouns
replacing I in essays
Learning how to write an essay without using ‘I,’ ‘We,’ or ‘You,’ and other personal languages can be challenging for students. The best writing skills recommend not to use such pronouns. This guide explores how to replace ‘I,’ ‘We,’ or ‘You’ in an essay and the methods to avoid them.
For those of us who have been able to overcome this, you will agree that there was a time when you experienced a challenge when finding alternatives to clauses such as “I will argue” or “I think.”
The good thing is that there are several methods of communicating your point and writing an essay without using ‘I’ or related personal language.
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Why Avoid Using Pronouns in Formal Writing
Before identifying the communication methods without using personal language like “I,” it is best to know why we should avoid such language while writing essays.
The most important reason for avoiding such language is because it is not suitable for formal writing such as essays. Appropriate professional English should not include any form of personal pronouns or language.
The second and equally important reason to avoid using personal language while writing an essay is to sound impersonal, functional, and objective.
In formal English, personal pronouns conflict with the idea of being impersonal, functional, and objective because they make redundant references to the writer and other people.
Personal pronouns will make an essay seem to contain only the writer’s perspectives and others they have deliberately selected. Again, they will make the work appear subjective.
Another reason to avoid personal language while coming up with an essay is to avoid sounding as if you have an urgent need to impress the reader through wording.
Personal pronouns like “you” and “I” tend to suggest something important that is away from what the writing is all about.
By continually using “I,” “we,” or “you,” you are taking the reader’s attention from the essay to other personal issues. The essay becomes all about the writer.
That being said, let’s explore how to replace “I” in an essay.
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Ways of avoiding pronouns “i,” “you,” and “we” in an essay.
You can replace the pronouns ‘I’, ‘You’, and ‘We’ by replacing them with acceptable wording, applying passive voice instead of pronouns, Using a third-person perspective, adopting an objective language, and including strong verbs and adjectives.
In our other guide, we explained the best practices to avoid using ‘you’ in essay writing and use academically sound words. Let us explore each of these strategies in detail.
1. Replacing it with an Acceptable Wording
This is a very good strategy for replacing “I” in an essay. The problem is that it is often difficult to find the right word to replace the personal pronoun. Though this is the case, “I” has some alternatives.
For example, if the verb that follows it revolves around writing and research, such as “…will present” or “…have described”, it is best to replace “I” with text-referencing nouns such as “the essay.”
If you wanted to say “I will present” or “I have described”, then the alternative will be “the essay will present,” or “as described in the essay.”
Another method of replacing “I” in an essay is using appropriate wording like “this writer” if the verb’s action is not within the text.
While this is sometimes acceptable, it is often advised to have no words here by using passive verbs or their equivalents.
A wording that may also be used but rarely suitable is “the researcher”. This alternative can only be used when your actions as a writer are completely detached from the writing.
2. Using Passive voice Instead of Pronouns
Another way to replace “I” and other personal pronouns in an essay is to use passive voice. This is achieved by transforming an active verb passive.
Though this is the case, the strategy is often difficult, and it may create sentence structures that are not acceptable in formal writing and language.
The sentences in which “I” can be successfully changed using this strategy is when an active verb describing an object is transformed into its passive form.
3. Using a Third-Person Perspective
This is a very important and applicable strategy when replacing “I” in an essay. This is where you avoid using first-person and second-person perspectives.
When referring to the subject matter, refer directly to them using the third person. For example, if you were to write, “I think regular exercise is good for mind and body”, you can replace it with “Regular exercise is good for mind and body”.
4. Use of Objective Language
Objective language is lost when a person uses informal expressions like colloquialisms, slang, contractions, and clichés. It is the reason why we discourage the use of contractions in essay writing so that you can keep things formal.
While informal language can be applicable in casual writing and speeches, it is not acceptable when writing essays. This is because you will be tempted to use a first-person perspective to convey your message.
5. Being Specific and using Strong Verbs and Adjectives
In most cases, essays that have been written using a lot of personal pronouns tend to be imprecise. When you want to avoid using “I” in your essay, try to be exact and straight to the point.
Personal pronouns tend to convey a subjective message, and it is up to the writer to explain their perspectives through writing.
Here, a writer will use a lot of “I think…” or “I believe…” to express their opinion. By doing so, the writer will end up wasting a lot of time explaining a concept.
Instead of doing that, it is best to look for appropriate verbs and adjectives to explain the points. Also, use objective language. Refer to the suggestions given by credible evidence instead of basing your arguments on what you think.
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Words to use Instead of Personal Pronouns like “You” and “I”
As noted, it is important to avoid using personal pronouns such as “You” and “I” when writing an essay.
By eliminating them or finding alternatives to them, your essay will be formal and objective. You can decide to eliminate them in a sentence.
For example, you could be having a sentence like “I think the author makes a valid point concerning capitalism.”
In this example, you can eliminate the personal language and write, “The author makes a valid point concerning capitalism.”
The second sentence goes straight to the point and is objective.
Other words to use instead of personal pronouns, like “You” and “I,” can be created when personal judgment words are avoided.
Instead, it is best to replace those words with those that refer to the evidence.
Examples of Ways to Replace Personal Pronouns
Below are examples of how personal judgment words can be replaced by words referring to the evidence.
- I feel – In light of the evidence
- From I think – According to the findings
- I agree – It is evident from the data that
- I am convinced – Considering the results
- You can see that – From the results, it is evident that
Using the third-person or “it” constructions can be used to replace personal pronouns like “You” and “I.” Such words also help to reduce the word count of your essay and make it short and precise.
For example, if you write “I conclude that, “replace those words with “it could be concluded that. ” Here, “it” constructions are helping replace personal pronouns to make the sentence more objective and precise.
To be more specific, words to replace personal pronouns like “I” include “one,” the viewer,” “the author,” “the reader,” “readers,” or something similar.
However, avoid overusing those words because your essay will seem stiff and awkward. For example, if you write, “I can perceive the plot’s confusion,” you can replace “I” by writing, “Readers can perceive the plot’s confusion.”
Words that can be used instead of personal pronouns like “You” include “one,” “the viewer,” reader,” “readers,” or any other similar phrases. It is similar to words that replace first-person pronouns.
For example, if you write “you can see that the poet’s tone is serious and urgent,” you can replace “You” by writing “readers/one can see that the poet’s tone is serious and urgent.”
Words to use Instead of “My” in an Essay
Since “My” demonstrates the possessiveness of something, in this case, the contents or thoughts within an essay, it makes the writing subjective. According to experts, writing should take an objective language . To do this, it is important to replace it.
You can replace the word “My” with “the”. For example, if you write, “My final thoughts concerning the issue are”, you can write, “The final thoughts concerning the issues are”.
In this case, the article “The” makes the sentence formal and objective.
Another method is eliminating the word “My” from the sentence to make it more objective and straight to the point.
In the same example above, if you write “My final thoughts concerning the issue are”, you can write “Final thoughts concerning the issue are”.
The major difference here is that the word “my” in the first example makes it subjective, and eliminating it from the sentence makes it sound formal and objective.
Therefore, when writing an essay, it is important to avoid personal pronouns like “You”, “I,” and “My.” Not all papers use third-person language. Different types of essays are formatted differently, a 5-paragraph essay is different from a 4-page paper , but all use third-person tones.
This is because an essay should be written in formal language, and using personal pronouns makes it appear and sound informal. Therefore, writing an essay without using ‘I’ is good.
Formal language makes your essay sound objective and precise. However, do not remove the first-person language when writing personal experiences in an essay or a paper. This is because it is acceptable and formal that way.
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How to Avoid Using Personal Language in Writing
Last Updated: November 29, 2022 Fact Checked
This article was co-authored by Tristen Bonacci . Tristen Bonacci is a Licensed English Teacher with more than 20 years of experience. Tristen has taught in both the United States and overseas. She specializes in teaching in a secondary education environment and sharing wisdom with others, no matter the environment. Tristen holds a BA in English Literature from The University of Colorado and an MEd from The University of Phoenix. There are 14 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 124,151 times.
Learning how to write without using personal language can be tough. It’s especially tricky to find alternatives to clauses such as “I think” or “I will argue,” but don't worry if you're stuck. There are lots of ways to make your point without using personal pronouns. Additionally, you might use slang and other informal expressions without even realizing it. Check your work, and replace casual, subjective words with objective language. With a little practice, you’ll know the rules of formal academic writing like the back of your hand.
Following General Rules
- For example, replace “I think the most important part of your day is having a good breakfast,” with “A nutritious breakfast is an important part of a healthy diet.”
- Slang words and colloquialisms are casual expressions shared by a region or social group, like “photobomb,” “kick the bucket,” or “Bob’s your uncle.” Instead of, "He kicked the bucket in a doozy of a wreck," write, "He was killed in a serious car accident."
- Clichés are overused expressions that have become meaningless or boring, such as “only time will tell” or “cream of the crop.” Alternatives for these phrases could be "remains to be seen" and "the best."
- Examples of contractions include “don’t,” “wouldn’t,” hasn’t,” and “it’s.” Instead of using them, spell out the words in full.
- Additionally, avoid casual estimates, such as “a couple of studies,” “a lot of time,” or “a bunch of research.” Instead, use specific numbers, such as “The team spent 17 days collecting samples.”
- For instance, “An expert witness debunked the defense’s argument” is stronger than “The witness made an extremely convincing testimony that made the defendant look absolutely guilty.”
- Replace "to be" verbs like is", "am", "are", "were", "was", and "will be", with stronger verbs. For example, instead of saying, "The defense's argument was wrong because it was based on speculation" say, "The argument failed because it relied on speculative evidence."
Finding Alternatives to Personal Pronouns
- Compare the examples, “I think the nations’ economic relationship prevented war,” and “The nations’ economic relationship prevented war.” The second example is objective and sounds authoritative.
- Even if the other side presents a strong argument, keep an authoritative tone throughout. While you should acknowledge the other side, avoid using personal pronouns, as this could weaken your stance.
- Consider the sentence, “I strongly disagree with the defense’s attempt to blame the accident on a vehicle defect.” Stronger phrasing could be, “According to expert testimony from the manufacturer, the defense’s claims regarding a vehicle defect had no basis in reality.”
- For the example, “I will argue that market volatility led to the industry’s collapse,” just cut “I will argue that.”
- Tweak the phrasing for the sentence, “I will examine letters and journal entries to show how Charles Baudelaire’s life in Paris influenced his views of modernity.” You could start the sentence with “Examining letters and journal entries will show," and leave out “I will.”
- In passive voice, an action was done by someone or something: "This was done by them." Because of this construction, passive voice tends to be wordy. Active voice is crisper and emphasizes the doer: "They did this."
- Keep in mind that you should write in the active voice whenever possible. Write “Charles Baudelaire described modernity” instead of “Modernity was described by Charles Baudelaire.  X Research source
- Instead of “The painting overwhelms you with texture and color,” write “The painting overwhelms viewers with texture and color.”
- You can also just replace generalizations with tighter wording. Replace “You can see that the claim is false,” with “The claim is false,” or reword it as “The evidence disproves the claim.”
- Include formal generalizations in moderation. Using “one can see” or “one would think” too often will make your writing feel awkward.
Avoiding Informal Expressions
- For example, “The efficiency audit determined that streamlining the application process will generate interest,” refers to a reliable source and states a fact. “The application process is terrible and confusing,” expresses an opinion.
- If you're trying to make an emotional appeal to your audience, it is acceptable to use more emotional language, although you should still avoid using the first person.
- For example, “That guy was a real hater, so his boss gave him the third-degree,” features slang. “The manager reprimanded the cashier for insubordinate behavior,” is more specific and objective.
- Examples of common expressions include “easier said than done,” “sooner or later,” "at the end of the day", and “reached a happy medium.” Alternatives for these expressions could be “more difficult in practice,” “inevitable,” "ultimately", and “compromised.”
- Additionally, ensure your sentences are always complete and unabbreviated. For example, “The performer gave an excellent performance. Not a dry eye in the theater,” is grammatically incorrect and inappropriate for academic writing.  X Research source
- For resume writing, terse, incomplete sentences are actually preferred. Instead of “I reduced purchasing costs by 10%,” write, “Reduced purchasing costs by 10%.”
- Every discipline has its own writing standards. For specific advice about writing standards, check your field’s style guide, such as Chicago, MLA , or APA . Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
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- ↑ Tristen Bonacci. Licensed English Teacher. Expert Interview. 21 December 2021.
- ↑ https://www.adelaide.edu.au/writingcentre/ua/media/21/learningguide-objectivelanguage.pdf
- ↑ https://www.grammarly.com/blog/specificity-in-writing/
- ↑ https://www.butte.edu/departments/cas/tipsheets/style_purpose_strategy/writing_clearly.html
- ↑ https://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/academicwriting
- ↑ https://wts.indiana.edu/writing-guides/using-evidence.html
- ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/should-i-use-i/
- ↑ https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/passive-voice/
- ↑ https://www.cs.columbia.edu/~hgs/etc/writing-bugs.html
- ↑ https://facultyweb.ivcc.edu/rrambo/tip_formal_writing_voice.htm
- ↑ https://lnu.se/en/library/Writing-and-referencing/academic-language/
- ↑ https://www.nus.edu.sg/celc/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/chapter03.pdf
- ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/mechanics/sentence_fragments.html
- ↑ https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/types-of-english-formal-informal-etc/formal-and-informal-language
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Should I Use “I”?
What this handout is about.
This handout is about determining when to use first person pronouns (“I”, “we,” “me,” “us,” “my,” and “our”) and personal experience in academic writing. “First person” and “personal experience” might sound like two ways of saying the same thing, but first person and personal experience can work in very different ways in your writing. You might choose to use “I” but not make any reference to your individual experiences in a particular paper. Or you might include a brief description of an experience that could help illustrate a point you’re making without ever using the word “I.” So whether or not you should use first person and personal experience are really two separate questions, both of which this handout addresses. It also offers some alternatives if you decide that either “I” or personal experience isn’t appropriate for your project. If you’ve decided that you do want to use one of them, this handout offers some ideas about how to do so effectively, because in many cases using one or the other might strengthen your writing.
Expectations about academic writing
Students often arrive at college with strict lists of writing rules in mind. Often these are rather strict lists of absolutes, including rules both stated and unstated:
- Each essay should have exactly five paragraphs.
- Don’t begin a sentence with “and” or “because.”
- Never include personal opinion.
- Never use “I” in essays.
We get these ideas primarily from teachers and other students. Often these ideas are derived from good advice but have been turned into unnecessarily strict rules in our minds. The problem is that overly strict rules about writing can prevent us, as writers, from being flexible enough to learn to adapt to the writing styles of different fields, ranging from the sciences to the humanities, and different kinds of writing projects, ranging from reviews to research.
So when it suits your purpose as a scholar, you will probably need to break some of the old rules, particularly the rules that prohibit first person pronouns and personal experience. Although there are certainly some instructors who think that these rules should be followed (so it is a good idea to ask directly), many instructors in all kinds of fields are finding reason to depart from these rules. Avoiding “I” can lead to awkwardness and vagueness, whereas using it in your writing can improve style and clarity. Using personal experience, when relevant, can add concreteness and even authority to writing that might otherwise be vague and impersonal. Because college writing situations vary widely in terms of stylistic conventions, tone, audience, and purpose, the trick is deciphering the conventions of your writing context and determining how your purpose and audience affect the way you write. The rest of this handout is devoted to strategies for figuring out when to use “I” and personal experience.
Effective uses of “I”:
In many cases, using the first person pronoun can improve your writing, by offering the following benefits:
- Assertiveness: In some cases you might wish to emphasize agency (who is doing what), as for instance if you need to point out how valuable your particular project is to an academic discipline or to claim your unique perspective or argument.
- Clarity: Because trying to avoid the first person can lead to awkward constructions and vagueness, using the first person can improve your writing style.
- Positioning yourself in the essay: In some projects, you need to explain how your research or ideas build on or depart from the work of others, in which case you’ll need to say “I,” “we,” “my,” or “our”; if you wish to claim some kind of authority on the topic, first person may help you do so.
Deciding whether “I” will help your style
Here is an example of how using the first person can make the writing clearer and more assertive:
In studying American popular culture of the 1980s, the question of to what degree materialism was a major characteristic of the cultural milieu was explored.
Better example using first person:
In our study of American popular culture of the 1980s, we explored the degree to which materialism characterized the cultural milieu.
The original example sounds less emphatic and direct than the revised version; using “I” allows the writers to avoid the convoluted construction of the original and clarifies who did what.
Here is an example in which alternatives to the first person would be more appropriate:
As I observed the communication styles of first-year Carolina women, I noticed frequent use of non-verbal cues.
A study of the communication styles of first-year Carolina women revealed frequent use of non-verbal cues.
In the original example, using the first person grounds the experience heavily in the writer’s subjective, individual perspective, but the writer’s purpose is to describe a phenomenon that is in fact objective or independent of that perspective. Avoiding the first person here creates the desired impression of an observed phenomenon that could be reproduced and also creates a stronger, clearer statement.
Here’s another example in which an alternative to first person works better:
As I was reading this study of medieval village life, I noticed that social class tended to be clearly defined.
This study of medieval village life reveals that social class tended to be clearly defined.
Although you may run across instructors who find the casual style of the original example refreshing, they are probably rare. The revised version sounds more academic and renders the statement more assertive and direct.
Here’s a final example:
I think that Aristotle’s ethical arguments are logical and readily applicable to contemporary cases, or at least it seems that way to me.
Aristotle’s ethical arguments are logical and readily applicable to contemporary cases.
In this example, there is no real need to announce that that statement about Aristotle is your thought; this is your paper, so readers will assume that the ideas in it are yours.
Determining whether to use “I” according to the conventions of the academic field
Which fields allow “I”?
The rules for this are changing, so it’s always best to ask your instructor if you’re not sure about using first person. But here are some general guidelines.
Sciences: In the past, scientific writers avoided the use of “I” because scientists often view the first person as interfering with the impression of objectivity and impersonality they are seeking to create. But conventions seem to be changing in some cases—for instance, when a scientific writer is describing a project she is working on or positioning that project within the existing research on the topic. Check with your science instructor to find out whether it’s o.k. to use “I” in his/her class.
Social Sciences: Some social scientists try to avoid “I” for the same reasons that other scientists do. But first person is becoming more commonly accepted, especially when the writer is describing his/her project or perspective.
Humanities: Ask your instructor whether you should use “I.” The purpose of writing in the humanities is generally to offer your own analysis of language, ideas, or a work of art. Writers in these fields tend to value assertiveness and to emphasize agency (who’s doing what), so the first person is often—but not always—appropriate. Sometimes writers use the first person in a less effective way, preceding an assertion with “I think,” “I feel,” or “I believe” as if such a phrase could replace a real defense of an argument. While your audience is generally interested in your perspective in the humanities fields, readers do expect you to fully argue, support, and illustrate your assertions. Personal belief or opinion is generally not sufficient in itself; you will need evidence of some kind to convince your reader.
Other writing situations: If you’re writing a speech, use of the first and even the second person (“you”) is generally encouraged because these personal pronouns can create a desirable sense of connection between speaker and listener and can contribute to the sense that the speaker is sincere and involved in the issue. If you’re writing a resume, though, avoid the first person; describe your experience, education, and skills without using a personal pronoun (for example, under “Experience” you might write “Volunteered as a peer counselor”).
A note on the second person “you”:
In situations where your intention is to sound conversational and friendly because it suits your purpose, as it does in this handout intended to offer helpful advice, or in a letter or speech, “you” might help to create just the sense of familiarity you’re after. But in most academic writing situations, “you” sounds overly conversational, as for instance in a claim like “when you read the poem ‘The Wasteland,’ you feel a sense of emptiness.” In this case, the “you” sounds overly conversational. The statement would read better as “The poem ‘The Wasteland’ creates a sense of emptiness.” Academic writers almost always use alternatives to the second person pronoun, such as “one,” “the reader,” or “people.”
Personal experience in academic writing
The question of whether personal experience has a place in academic writing depends on context and purpose. In papers that seek to analyze an objective principle or data as in science papers, or in papers for a field that explicitly tries to minimize the effect of the researcher’s presence such as anthropology, personal experience would probably distract from your purpose. But sometimes you might need to explicitly situate your position as researcher in relation to your subject of study. Or if your purpose is to present your individual response to a work of art, to offer examples of how an idea or theory might apply to life, or to use experience as evidence or a demonstration of an abstract principle, personal experience might have a legitimate role to play in your academic writing. Using personal experience effectively usually means keeping it in the service of your argument, as opposed to letting it become an end in itself or take over the paper.
It’s also usually best to keep your real or hypothetical stories brief, but they can strengthen arguments in need of concrete illustrations or even just a little more vitality.
Here are some examples of effective ways to incorporate personal experience in academic writing:
- Anecdotes: In some cases, brief examples of experiences you’ve had or witnessed may serve as useful illustrations of a point you’re arguing or a theory you’re evaluating. For instance, in philosophical arguments, writers often use a real or hypothetical situation to illustrate abstract ideas and principles.
- References to your own experience can explain your interest in an issue or even help to establish your authority on a topic.
- Some specific writing situations, such as application essays, explicitly call for discussion of personal experience.
Here are some suggestions about including personal experience in writing for specific fields:
Philosophy: In philosophical writing, your purpose is generally to reconstruct or evaluate an existing argument, and/or to generate your own. Sometimes, doing this effectively may involve offering a hypothetical example or an illustration. In these cases, you might find that inventing or recounting a scenario that you’ve experienced or witnessed could help demonstrate your point. Personal experience can play a very useful role in your philosophy papers, as long as you always explain to the reader how the experience is related to your argument. (See our handout on writing in philosophy for more information.)
Religion: Religion courses might seem like a place where personal experience would be welcomed. But most religion courses take a cultural, historical, or textual approach, and these generally require objectivity and impersonality. So although you probably have very strong beliefs or powerful experiences in this area that might motivate your interest in the field, they shouldn’t supplant scholarly analysis. But ask your instructor, as it is possible that he or she is interested in your personal experiences with religion, especially in less formal assignments such as response papers. (See our handout on writing in religious studies for more information.)
Literature, Music, Fine Arts, and Film: Writing projects in these fields can sometimes benefit from the inclusion of personal experience, as long as it isn’t tangential. For instance, your annoyance over your roommate’s habits might not add much to an analysis of “Citizen Kane.” However, if you’re writing about Ridley Scott’s treatment of relationships between women in the movie “Thelma and Louise,” some reference your own observations about these relationships might be relevant if it adds to your analysis of the film. Personal experience can be especially appropriate in a response paper, or in any kind of assignment that asks about your experience of the work as a reader or viewer. Some film and literature scholars are interested in how a film or literary text is received by different audiences, so a discussion of how a particular viewer or reader experiences or identifies with the piece would probably be appropriate. (See our handouts on writing about fiction , art history , and drama for more information.)
Women’s Studies: Women’s Studies classes tend to be taught from a feminist perspective, a perspective which is generally interested in the ways in which individuals experience gender roles. So personal experience can often serve as evidence for your analytical and argumentative papers in this field. This field is also one in which you might be asked to keep a journal, a kind of writing that requires you to apply theoretical concepts to your experiences.
History: If you’re analyzing a historical period or issue, personal experience is less likely to advance your purpose of objectivity. However, some kinds of historical scholarship do involve the exploration of personal histories. So although you might not be referencing your own experience, you might very well be discussing other people’s experiences as illustrations of their historical contexts. (See our handout on writing in history for more information.)
Sciences: Because the primary purpose is to study data and fixed principles in an objective way, personal experience is less likely to have a place in this kind of writing. Often, as in a lab report, your goal is to describe observations in such a way that a reader could duplicate the experiment, so the less extra information, the better. Of course, if you’re working in the social sciences, case studies—accounts of the personal experiences of other people—are a crucial part of your scholarship. (See our handout on writing in the sciences for more information.)
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Module 4: Writing in College
Writing a personal essay, learning objectives.
- Describe techniques for writing an effective personal essay
How to Write a Personal Essay
One particular and common kind of narrative essay is the personal narrative essay. Maybe you have already written one of these in order to get to college or for a scholarship. The personal essay is a narrative essay focused on you. Typically, you write about events or people in your life that taught you important life lessons. These events should have changed you somehow. From this choice will emerge the theme (the main point) of your story. Then you can follow these steps:
Figure 1 . Brainstorming the details of a personal experience can help you to write a more complete story with elements like vivid details, dialogue, and sufficient character development.
- Once you identify the event, you will write down what happened. Just brainstorm (also called freewriting). Focus on the actual event. You do not need to provide a complete build-up to it. For example, if you are telling a story about an experience at camp, you do not need to provide readers with a history of your camp experiences, nor do you need to explain how you got there, what you ate each day, how long it lasted, etc. Readers need enough information to understand the event.
- Use descriptions/vivid details.
- “Nothing moved but a pair of squirrels chasing each other back and forth on the telephone wires. I followed one in my sight. Finally, it stopped for a moment and I fired.”
- Passive voice uses the verb “to be” along with an action verb: had been aiming, was exhausted.
- Even though the “characters” in your story are real people, your readers won’t get to know them unless you describe them, present their personalities, and give them physical presence.
- Dialogue helps readers get to know the characters in your story, infuses the story with life, and offers a variation from description and explanation. When writing dialogue, you may not remember exactly what was said in the past, so be true to the person being represented and come as close to the actual language the person uses as possible. Dialogue is indented with each person speaking as its own paragraph. The paragraph ends when that person is done speaking and any following explanation or continuing action ends. (If your characters speak a language other than English, feel free to include that in your narrative, but provide a translation for your English-speaking readers.)
- Remember, if it is a personal narrative, you are telling the story, so it should be in first person. Students often worry about whether or not they are allowed to use “I.” It is impossible to write a personal essay without using “I”!
- Write the story in a consistent verb tense (almost always past tense). It doesn’t work to try to write it in the present tense since it already happened. Make sure you stay in the past tense.
Sample Personal Statement
One type of narrative essay you may have reason to write is a Personal Statement.
Many colleges and universities ask for a Personal Statement Essay for students who are applying for admission, to transfer, or for scholarships. Generally, a Personal Statement asks you to respond to a specific prompt, most often asking you to describe a significant life event, a personality trait, or a goal or principle that motivates or inspires you. Personal Statements are essentially narrative essays with a particular focus on the writer’s personal life.
The following essay was responding to the prompt: “Write about an experience that made you aware of a skill or strength you possess.” As you read, pay attention to the way the writer gets your attention with a strong opening, how he uses vivid details and a chronological narrative to tell his story, and how he links back to the prompt in the conclusion.
Sample Student Essay
Alen Abramyan Professor X English 1101-209 2/5/2022
In the Middle of Nowhere Fighting Adversity
A three-punch combination had me seeing stars. Blood started to rush down my nose. The Russian trainers quietly whispered to one another. I knew right away that my nose was broken. Was this the end of my journey; or was I about to face adversity?
Ever since I was seven years old, I trained myself in, “The Art of Boxing.” While most of the kids were out playing fun games and hanging out with their friends, I was in a damp, sweat-filled gym. My path was set to be a difficult one. Blood, sweat, and tears were going to be an everyday occurrence.
At a very young age I learned the meaning of hard work and dedication. Most kids jumped from one activity to the next. Some quit because it was too hard; others quit because they were too bored. My father pointed this out to me on many occasions. Adults would ask my father, ” why do you let your son box? It’s such a dangerous sport, he could get hurt. My father always replied, “Everyone is going to get hurt in their lives, physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m making sure he’s ready for the challenges he’s going to face as a man. I always felt strong after hearing my father speak that way about me. I was a boy being shaped into a man, what a great feeling it was.
Year after year, I participated in boxing tournaments across the U.S. As the years went by, the work ethic and strength of character my father and coaches instilled in me, were starting to take shape. I began applying the hard work and dedication I learned in boxing, to my everyday life. I realized that when times were tough and challenges presented themselves, I wouldn’t back down, I would become stronger. This confidence I had in myself, gave me the strength to pursue my boxing career in Russia.
I traveled to Russia to compete in Amateur Boxing. Tournament after tournament I came closer to my goal of making the Russian Olympic Boxing team. After successfully winning the Kaliningrad regional tournament, I began training for the Northwest Championships. This would include boxers from St. Petersburg, Pskov, Kursk and many other powerful boxing cities.
We had to prepare for a tough tournament, and that’s what we did. While sparring one week before the tournament, I was caught by a strong punch combination to the nose. I knew right away it was serious. Blood began rushing down my face, as I noticed the coaches whispering to each other. They walked into my corner and examined my nose,” yeah, it’s broken,” Yuri Ivonovich yelled out. I was asked to clean up and to meet them in their office. I walked into the Boxing Federation office after a quick shower. I knew right away, they wanted to replace me for the upcoming tournament. “We’re investing a lot of money on you boxers and we expect good results. Why should we risk taking you with a broken nose?” Yuri Ivonovich asked me. I replied, “I traveled half-way around the world to be here, this injury isn’t a problem for me.” And by the look on my face they were convinced, they handed me my train ticket and wished me luck.
The train came to a screeching halt, shaking all the passengers awake. I glanced out my window, “Welcome to Cherepovets,” the sign read. In the background I saw a horrific skyline of smokestacks, coughing out thick black smoke. Arriving in the city, we went straight to the weigh ins. Hundreds of boxers, all from many cities were there. The brackets were set up shortly after the weigh ins. In the Super Heavyweight division, I found out I had 4 fights to compete in, each increasing in difficulty. My first match, I made sure not a punch would land; this was true for the next two fights. Winning all three 6-0, 8-0 and 7-0 respectively. It looked like I was close to winning the whole tournament. For the finals I was to fight the National Olympic Hope Champion.
The night before the finals was coincidentally the 200th anniversary of the city. All night by my hotel, I heard screams of laughter and partying. I couldn’t sleep a wink. The morning of the fight I was exhausted but anxious. I stepped into the ring knowing that I was tired. I fell behind in points quickly in the first round. I felt as if I were dreaming, with no control of the situation. I was going along for the ride and it wasn’t pleasant. At the end of the second round, the coach informed me that I was far behind. “?You’re asleep in there,” he yelled out to me, confirming how I felt. I knew this was my last chance; I had to give it my all. I mustered up enough strength to have an amazing round. It was as if I stepped out and a fresh boxer stepped in. I glanced at my coaches and see a look of approval. No matter the outcome, I felt that I had defeated adversity. My opponent’s hand was raised , he won a close decision, 6-5. After I got back to my hotel, I remembered Yuri Ivonovich telling me they expected good results. “How were my results,” I asked myself. In my mind, the results were great, with a broken nose and with no sleep, I came one point shy of defeating the National Olympic Hope Champion.
Even from a very young age, I knew that when my back was against the wall and adversity was knocking on my door, I would never back down. I became a stronger person, a trait my family made sure I would carry into my adult years. No matter what I’m striving for; getting into a University; receiving a scholarship; or applying for a job, I can proudly say to myself, I am Alen Abramyan and adversity is no match for me.
Link to Learning
Sandra Cisneros offers an example of a narrative essay in “Only Daughter” that captures her sense of her Chicana-Mexican heritage as the only daughter in a family of seven children.
Do Personal Essays have Thesis Statements?
While many personal essays include a direct statement of the thesis, in some personal essays the thesis may be implied, or suggested, rather than stated outright.
Imagine, for example, that in your personal essay you decide to write about the way someone influenced you. The influential individual could be a relative, a friend or classmate, an employer or a teacher. As you shape your essay, you would not simply assemble a collection of miscellaneous observations about the person; instead, you would be selective and focus on details about this person that show his or her impact upon you.
Let us say that the person who influenced you is a grandparent. You may know a lot about this individual: personality traits, family and marital history, medical history, educational background, work experience, military experience, political and religious beliefs, hobbies, tastes in music, etc. As you shape your essay, you wouldn’t try to catalog all that you know. Instead, you would try to create a dominant impression by including details that guide your reader toward the idea that is central to the essay.
For example, if you developed certain habits and attitudes as you and your grandparent worked together on a project, that experience might provide the focus for the essay. If you chose details consistent with that focus, then you wouldn’t need to state that this was the point of the essay. Your readers would understand that that was the governing idea based on the details you had so carefully chosen.
Whether the thesis is stated outright or implied, then, the personal essay will have a governing idea—an idea that is “in charge” of what you decide to include in the essay in terms of content, vocabulary, sentence structure, and tone. In short, the personal essay may not have a thesis statement, but it will have a thesis.
Consider a personal essay in which a student was asked to write about a person she admired, and she wrote about her cousin. She wrote:
- I admired my cousin’s decision to enlist because she had to withstand criticism from people who thought women shouldn’t be in the army and because in basic training she had to stand up to physical and mental challenges that I don’t think I could face.
The thesis statement provides guidance for both writing and reading the essay. Writer and reader alike are able to see what the subject of the essay is and what is being stated about the subject and how the essay should be organized. No matter how many body paragraphs there are, this thesis implies that the paper will be divided into two sections. One section will group together the paragraphs on this topic: cousin “had to withstand criticism from people who thought women shouldn’t be in the army.” Another section will group together the paragraphs on this second topic: “in basic training she had to stand up to physical and mental challenges.”
Are Narratives Persuasive?
In a personal essay, you may not think of your thesis as “arguable” in the same way as a claim in a persuasive essay would be arguable, but in fact, you can think of it as something that should need to be demonstrated—backed up through explanations and illustrations. Usually, the idea that should be demonstrated is that you are a thoughtful, reflective person who has learned from the events and people in your life.
If the thesis does not need to be demonstrated, then there may not be much purpose in writing the essay. For, example, a statement that “George W. Bush was the forty-third president” or the statement that “Senior proms are exciting” would not be considered arguable by most people and likely would not spark a reader’s interest to make them want to keep reading.
On the other hand, the thesis statements below would need to be explained and illustrated. In that sense, these personal essay thesis statements are equivalent to claims that are “arguable.”
- The evening was nearly ruined because parents acting as dress-code vigilantes threw several people out of the prom.
- My team spent hours planning the prom and managed to head off a repeat of the after-prom drinking that caused some parents to question whether the prom should be held this year.
- Everyone was able to attend the prom proudly because our prom committee got several stores to loan outfits to make certain everyone would feel like they fit in.
- I opted to attend an alternative prom because the principal refused to allow a same-sex couple to attend.
Keep in mind that the actions or events in your essay do not have to make you look heroic. You could write a convincing and powerful essay about how you attended the school-sponsored prom, even though the principal refused to allow a same-sex couple to attend. Your essay, in this case, might, for example, focus on your regret over your decision and your subsequent understanding of how you think you can best challenge the status quo in the future. In other words, you can write an effective personal essay about a moment of regret.
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- Narrative Essay. Provided by : Excelsior OWL. Located at : https://owl.excelsior.edu/rhetorical-styles/narrative-essay/narrative-essay-see-it-across-the-disciplines/ . License : CC BY: Attribution
- Narrative Essays. Authored by : Marianne Botos, Lynn McClelland, Stephanie Polliard, Pamela Osback . Located at : https://pvccenglish.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/eng-101-inside-pages-proof2-no-pro.pdf . Project : Horse of a Different Color: English Composition and Rhetoric . License : CC BY: Attribution
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