Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's your paper. Put yourself into it.

by Aaron Smith

Have you ever had a teacher tell you not to use “I” in a scholarly paper?
My guess is that you have.
This is one of the most unfortunate rules we learn in high school—it leads to a mess of grammatical errors and confusing sentence structures, and it detaches you from your writing and, consequently, from your own ideas.

It's tempting to forget you ever learned the rule and go on with your life, but the rule isn't a completely arbitrary one. You would do well to understand where it comes from before you bring the “I” back into your papers.

This is the issue the rule addresses:

If you were to write “I think that . . .” before a statement like “Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story,” it would create the following problems:

            First, if you say, “Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story,” it's already implied that you think Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story. The “I think that” only amounts to three extra words in the sentence.

            Second, who cares that you think that? It's not an especially bold statement—no one will give you an award for attaching yourself to it.

            Third, Romeo and Juliet just is a tragic love story. The claim was never up for debate.

            Fourth, the “I think” weakens the statement by implying that you might not be right. If you say, “Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story,” the sentence sounds much stronger.

Your high school teachers have told you not to use “I” in school writing to keep you from cluttering your papers with “I think”s and “I feel”s and encourage you to write strong, clear, objective statements.

Here's how the rule backfires when you get to college:

When your teachers tell you not to use “I,” what they don't realize is that they are giving you the impression that you should avoid referring yourself altogether in your writing. This is just wrong. College professors expect you to have a thesis, and they expect you to express your own ideas.

So sometimes saying “I think” is a good thing.

Just because nobody cares if you think Romeo and Juliet is a tragic romance, it doesn't mean that nobody cares what you think. If you are writing a paper and you have an insight that is genuinely yours, take ownership of it.

It's easy to convince yourself that if you have an idea in a paper, you need a quotation from a famous scholar to prove that the idea is valid. Your ideas are already valid. And showing your reader that one random scholar agrees with you is not in and of itself any more convincing than saying, “See? My dad ALSO thinks you should give me ten dollars,” to a friend. If you want your friend to give you ten dollars, you will have much better luck if you give him a good reason to do so.

Avoiding “I” can also lead to wordy, confusing writing.

If I want to write a sentence such as

            “The passage I've just quoted has the potential to contradict my thesis.”

but I'm writing under the impression that I shouldn't be referring to myself, I will probably write something like

            “The passage mentioned prior to this sentence has the potential to contradict the thesis that this    paper sets out to prove.”

Use your judgment. Which of these sounds better? The first is dead clear. The second is just a mess.

Whether you are writing an e-mail to a friend, an essay for your professor, an opinion piece for a newspaper, or pretty much anything else, being clear is always better than sounding smart. The best way to sound genuinely smart is to develop your ideas fully and express them in language that your reader can understand. Never forget that you write in order to communicate with other human beings.

So can you throw the “don't use I” rule out the window?

For the most part yes, but not always. If your particular field of study relies on empirical data (the sciences, economics, etc.), more of your paper will be devoted to presenting that data. You would only need to use “I” if you were referring specifically to the details of your experiment, or to your own interpretations of the data you're working with.

Overusing “I” can also be stylistically sloppy, but style is too complex an issue to bullet-point rules and formulas for. The best way to get a sense of good style in writing is to read—A LOT.

In the end, you’ll need to use your judgment.

If you feel like your paper sounds unnaturally formal (i.e., your writing doesn’t sound like you wrote it!),  it probably does sound unnatural. And if you intuitively write a sentence with “I” in it and then spend fifteen minutes trying to figure out a way to rewrite it without “I,” stop yourself—you are trying to make your writing adhere to standards that don't exist.

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