If it weren't for you, dear reader, I would be writing my second-to-last column for this newspaper. But because so many of you asked the Star Tribune to reconsider dropping my column, the editors have decided to continue publishing it. For that I offer you, and the Star Tribune, my humble thanks.
So for this column, the first of many to come, I'd like to do something a little different. I'd like to give you an inside look into an academic debate taking place within many graduate programs. Its topic — whether the first person is acceptable in technical, scientific, and academic writing — is relevant to many on-the-job writers.
My vote is to allow its use.
Because writing in the first person creates a more personal, informal tone, its use has traditionally been regarded as unscientific in technical fields. As one colleague points out, "The use of the first person is challenging for many writers, often unconsciously shifting their balance toward opinion rather than presentation of facts and reasoning."
I agree that allowing its use poses certain challenges. Overcoming these challenges, however, requires just the sort of sophistication we require of our graduates.
Writing in the first person offers four distinct advantages. First, it generally leads to more concise, emphatic, and colorful writing (although technical writers like Lewis Thomas can write memorably in any person). Second, it encourages use of the active voice rather than the passive. Compare, for example, "Surprised by these anomalies, I decided to investigate further" with "Because of these anomalies, further investigation was conducted."
Third, the first person is less likely to produce dangling and misplaced errors, a grammatical error all too common in writing that prohibits use of the first person, as in "After discovering these anomalies, further research was conducted" and "To effect this change, it is necessary to win over our team members," compared with the grammatically correct "After discovering these anomalies, I conducted further research" and "To effect this change, we must win over our team members."
A fourth argument is more difficult to articulate and substantiate, but it may in the end be the most compelling: First person personal is the way the modern mind seems to be evolving. It's the way we formulate and express our thoughts. As Constance Hale argues in "Wired Style" and as Nicholas Carr laments in "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains," the personal, informal voice (as well as the glib and unthinking) is the voice of the future, not just in blogs and memoir but in all types of writing.
To appreciate the change, one has only to compare the formal, distant voice of literary criticism in the 1950s (today we would call it stodgy) with the highly personal voices of Rebecca Mead in "My Life in Middlemarch" and Azar Nafisi in "The Republic of Imagination," two works of brilliant literary criticism offered in the form of memoir. Closer to home, the first-person voices of University of Minnesota faculty members Roger Jones in "Physics as Metaphor," Karal Ann Marling in "The Colossus of Roads," and Elaine Tyler May in "Barren in the Promised Land" have not only opened the door for younger scholars in their respective disciplines, but also reached wider audiences for their own scholarship.
So for this column, I won't write, "Thanks are offered to you." I'll write, "I thank you."
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.