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Monday, 6 November 2017

Me or them? First-person versus third-person writing

I am writing this blog; it is not ´being written´- that would be vague and imprecise. Why, therefore, is a research project ´done´, apparently as if by magic and, moreover, why has it been done by ´the researcher´- presumably the person who has duly ´done´ the research?
I deliver workshops and seminars on writing for publication across the globe. While I often have comments on some of my more controversial views on academic writing, I never fail to have an argument with a participant or an audience member on the issue of first person writing. Essentially, I propose—with evidence—that it is acceptable; I am repeatedly told that it is not. Why? Because that is the nonsense we teach people at school and then perpetuate at university. ´First person writing is not scholarly´—thus, we infect people with this ridiculous notion (akin to the nonsense about not usingsub-headings in essays) in the face of copious evidence and the demonstrable fact that the academic publishing industry has long since ´moved on´.
So, where is the evidence? Well, only in the most famous and revolutionary scientific article ever written, by James Watson and Francis Crick, in the world´s leading scientific journal Nature as long ago as 1953 (before the author—sorry, ´I´—was born). The opening line is a classic both in scientific modesty and politeness—despite the fact that these two were far from modest or polite—and first person writing as in:

´We wish tosuggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.).´

The Watson and Crick (1953) example is not isolated, either in concept or in time, as demonstrated by the opening two sentences from a 2017 article based on a recent multi-country study from The Lancet as follows:

´We did a prospective cohort study.... We documented their diet using....´

Apart from the obvious directness and active nature of first person writing as opposed to the vague and imprecise nature of passive´it was done by the researcher´—writing, first person writing often uses fewer words and fewer words is always better and preferred by editors. This is due to the need to save space and to increase precision. But first person writing also makes the narrative more engaging, even in relatively dry subjects, and demonstrates that the writer really ´owns´ the work. Passive writing detaches the person from the ideas, which some see as a virtue, but which is entirely pointless.

The academic publishing industry is in no doubt about first versus third person writing. I ´wish to suggest´ that we abandon it in academia as an out-dated and unnecessary concept.

You can listen to this as a podcast

(c) Yould Publications Ltd

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear, in fact a lot of my nursing Ph.D involves reflexivity and is full of writing in the first person