How to Be Yourself on the Page
You may understand the power of first-person writing, but can you wield it gracefully?
Academic convention long eschewed first-person writing, for no good reason really. That is slowly changing. Even some scientists, trained to use the passive voice, have begun to understand that “The experiment was conducted” is no more technical than “We conducted an experiment.”
But understanding the power of first-person writing doesn’t mean you know how to wield it gracefully. When you’re writing for peers in your subfield, it’s appropriate and efficient to use jargon and minimize explanations of concepts that specialists can be expected to know. It’s a whole different story if you’re trying to reach readers outside of your small scholarly bubble, and that kind of writing requires, well, storytelling skills. That means you need characters. And the one you know best is you, the writer.
Graduate students and faculty members ask me about this a lot, because I have spent years offering writing advice to academics and worked in publishing early in my career before becoming a professor. The payoff in using first person is that the reader gets to know you, becomes invested in you, and (ideally) cares more about whatever information you’re presenting. Think of your best teachers. They weren’t the ones whose lectures simply delivered scads of information (although that’s important). They were people who conveyed that information in a compelling way, whose personality shone through, and whose foibles you not only noticed but found endearing.
Style can accomplish many things. As Pascal wrote, “When we come across a natural style, we are surprised and delighted; for we expected an author, and we find a man.” Or a woman. If you care about reaching people beyond those who are already in the room (as you should, and as more and more academics do), the easiest way to find a natural style in your writing is to be your fully human self and embrace your “I.” Here’s how to start.
Think of a specific person as your reader. Perhaps sitting down to write “for the public” feels overwhelming. So think about writing to someone like your favorite well-read aunt or family friend. She’s sharp, smart, and has no patience for pretension. She doesn’t need you to prove you’re a member of the club because she doesn’t give a hoot about clubs. She does, however, love to learn new things.
My ideal reader looks a whole lot like Virginia Woolf. I want her to be impressed by what I write, but I also know that if I try too hard and puff myself up, she will use a tiny needle to deflate the hot air. Sometimes my ideal reader is a living person — a friend whose judgment I trust, or another writer who I don’t know but whose work I respect.
The point: While some people have an innate sense of how to use their own voice, most of us need to work to make sure that what ends up on the page is the smartest version of our authentic self. That means thinking beyond yourself to consider how you sound to someone else.
Write a draft as an email. When I work with college applicants on their admission essays, I ask them to come up with a list of topics and then write me an email about one or more of them. Instead of putting on their stiff “I am writing my college essay” persona, the idea of just writing about something they love to someone they don’t know but who is positively disposed toward them always produces the bones of a great essay.
For scholars who want to write for general-interest publications, I would advise exactly the same approach. I’ve read a zillion abstracts of articles, précis of dissertations, and descriptions of books. Mostly, I labor to get through the sentences. And sometimes that hard work doesn’t pay off because, even after multiple readings, I still can’t figure out why I should care. But when someone writes an email to tell me what she’s working on and what excites her about it, well, I lean in and pay attention. So will your readers.
Often, when academic friends ask me for help, I start reading what they’ve written and then get bogged down. I whip out my laptop and say, “Just tell me what you’re trying to say.” Then I record their exact sentences. The results are always better. You don’t even need to tell your story to a real person. If you suffer from keyboard-induced stuffiness, try talking into your phone and then transcribing. There are apps and programs to do this for you.
Make sure personal details in your writing serve a purpose. It’s clear that ChatGPT and its little bot friends are going to change the world in ways we don’t yet understand, but while AI may be able to produce mellifluous, human-sounding prose, it won’t include the personal details only you can provide. Details of how you work can humanize you when you’re writing about your research. It helps readers to see the person in a lab coat performing assays and going on a journey of discovery rather than simply presenting a readout of results.
Yet we don’t need to know the color of the lab coat or learn what the scientist had for breakfast — unless those details illuminate something important. The key is to keep your eyes on the prize: What is this article about? Which sensory (and other) details will work to help your reader get the points you want them to understand?
Don’t make yourself the hero. Writing in the first person can go wrong in many ways, which may be why some academics are twitchy about using it. Anyone who has ever read essays for college or graduate-school applications knows this well.
We don’t like people who are the heroes of their own stories. Word choices that seem innocuous can subtly shift the tone. “I accomplished” reads differently than “I managed to.” Any attempt to make oneself too good, too clever, too perfect falls just as flat as overwrought self-deprecation.
Write long drafts and then cut ruthlessly. Once you start writing in the first person, you may become so enchanted with your own voice you can’t stop. That’s when it can be helpful to learn how to cut. I believe in writing long drafts and then cutting them by around 75 percent. OK, maybe not always by that much, but by a lot. Academics make the same point in class multiple times so students will get it. That works in teaching but when they transfer that habit to their writing, the repetition is bad for the reader.
I like to make a reverse outline, going paragraph by paragraph, and summarizing main points. I usually find plenty to jettison — anecdotes without relevant points, ideas that I’ve already made clear (twice).
But don’t fail to elaborate. Sometimes I get stuck and feel like I have nothing more to say. Then I remember a trick I learned from an award-winning poet: After you write a declarative statement, add the phrase “by that I mean” or “I think this because” and then see what you have to say. I’ve shared that tip with many students to help them go deeper in their writing and thinking.
Writing should be an exercise in discovery. Often we need to write our way into our subjects. The first three paragraphs — or the first three pages — are throat-clearing. In the heat of banging out a draft, we use plenty of needless words. I find real pleasure in reducing flab.
Original article: https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-be-yourself-on-the-page