Mini-lesson idea: Avoiding first-person point of view in academic essays

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

For the most part, it’s an easy fix.

It’s nice when a common issue you know your students have with writing can be easily remedied. This is one of them: avoiding unintentional and unnecessary first-person point of view in academic writing.

For the most part, the first-person words can simply be removed with… wait for it… NO ADDITIONAL CHANGES.

Easy-peasy.

In the “before” photo below (from a literary analysis of The Old Man and the Sea), I’ve underlined the first-person verbiage that needs to be removed for three reasons: 1) it doesn’t accomplish anything, 2) it’s not intentional (meaning it’s not used for any desired effect), and 3) it has no purpose.

Project these examples in a mini-lesson to show a student-written mentor text:

In the “after” photo below, the student had to merely remove those first- person references to infuse his writing with more authority and credibility.

Here are those changes again, but now removed from their context:

  • “…and I think they are right;…”
  • “Instead, I believe the religious aspect doesn’t change…”
  • “We have one story in which…” changes to “There is one story in which…”

But to back up a bit… why is first-person point of view so objectionable in the first place?

I usually take the traditional view that using unintentional and inappropriate first-person point of view in academic writing lends an air of opinion to the writing… and therefore, some bias… and therefore, some weakness to the argument. When the first-person references are removed, the message is more direct and convincing.

At the same time, first-person point of view does have its place, even in academic writing. Above all, first-person point of view should be used with a sense of purpose, especially with regard to the intended audience of the piece.

And that’s the problem. With the example in the photos above, this student didn’t foresee the effect of using the first-person.

She just plopped those words into the text without thought or intention.

Purpose and intention are key. As this handout from Duke University advises:

Finally, academic writers should consider their audience and message when employing the first person and/or the personal voice.

What is an appropriate tone to take with regard to a certain topic? What is one’s own relationship to the subject at hand? For example, if one is writing about the Holocaust or a natural disaster, it may not be appropriate to cite personal material unless it is directly relevant and can be included in a respectful manner. On the other hand, when writing about topics such as race or gender, one’s own experience(s) of living in a racialized/gendered society may be not only appropriate but even necessary to include. Academic writers must decide whether, when, and where first-person references and the personal voice are appropriate to their message and their audience.

“The First Person in Academic Writing”; Thompson Writing Program at Duke University

In other words, writers must be intentional and weigh their options with point of view, try out different perspectives, revise, and make the needed changes… often only to go back to the original version after all.

Basically, choosing point of view in any written piece is a judgment call.

And that’s why teaching writing is so hard. It’s full of judgment calls,…

and it takes time to make them… more time than kids want to invest, unless they genuinely care about the assignment. (Learning how to create assignments that kids genuinely care about is another blog post entirely.)

Then and only then will students be willing to take the time to get the perspective intentionally and purposefully right.

Until that time, though, know that removing first person POV — when it’s unintentional and unnecessary — can be as easy as deleting a few words and leaving the rest as is.

Ahhhh. Like I said, easy-peasy.


Thanks for reading! Do you grapple with this common, hard-to-explain issue with your students? Tell me your approach by leaving a comment. While this post shows my best effort to help kids with this, I’m open to your suggestions, as always. Check out this recent post and become a follower for more.

Author: marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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