Academic Essay Writing In The First Person A Guide For Undergraduates

The following is based on an original document by Bethan Davies with revisions by John McKenna, D. Robert Ladd, and Ellen G. Bard of the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

1  Introduction

Good essay writing is a skill acquired rather than learnt. Approaches vary from person to person and will depend on one’s experience in essay writing, almost to the point where a style of writing will be as individual as a signature.

You may already be quite comfortable writing essays and if so, you will have a definite feel for what works for you. If, on the other hand, you are new at the game or don’t seem to be getting the marks you feel your efforts deserve, then we encourage you to follow the advice in Section 2 on preparation and research. The same applies to Section 3 on structure and Section 4 on style, but the contents of these sections can also serve as a basis for self-assessment—even for the experienced—before that final draft is submitted. There is a checklist at the end—use it! You should pay special attention to Section 4.3 on stylistic conventions, as there is little scope for flexibility on these matters within a particular academic discipline.

Throughout this short guide we use the term “essay” to mean any sort of academic writing assignment that you hand in for a course. In economics you will be required to produce a variety of written assignments, and only some of them will be “essays” in the sense that the term might be used in a history or literature course. Others will be concise reports of experiments or descriptions of economic or other data. However, they are all referred to herein as “essays,” and most of the principles of clarity, organization and presentation apply to them all.

2  Preparation

2.1  Time Management

Allow yourself enough time. If you work continuously on your essay right up to the deadline, there is a very high likelihood that you won’t have done yourself (or the topic) justice. So make a rough timetable. Aim to have what you subjectively feel is a “final” draft at least two days before the submission deadline. Use the remaining days to review your work at well-spaced intervals. This will help you look more objectively at your own work.

2.2  Getting Started

First vs. third person

Pronouns are a set of words that replace nouns. They can be used to make your work less complicated and less repetitive. Examples of pronouns include:

  • First person: I, we, me, us
  • Second person: you
  • Third person: he, she, it, they, him, her, them

For some assignments, it is appropriate to use the first person. However, for other assignments the third person is preferred. Sometimes a mixture of the first and third person should be used for different purposes. So, check your assignment guidelines for each assignment, as it will differ for different assignment types, different style guides, and different disciplines. If you are unsure, then check with your course coordinator.

First person preference

The first person can be used to make writing more concise when providing personal reflection, stating a position, or outlining the structure of an assignment.

Some disciplines/lecturers allow or encourage the use of first or second person ('I', 'we', 'you', etc.). The use of the first person is also recommended/allowed in some style guides. For example, in the American Psychological Association Publication Manual (6th ed.) it is recommended that authors use the first person to avoid ambiguity and anthropomorphism.

How to use the first person

The following examples illustrate some ways you can use the first person in your writing.

Example 1: Structuring an essay

In this essay, I will argue that gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviours.

I will argue that gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviours.

The essay will examine how gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviour.

Example 2: Describing research you conducted

I found that...

We informed participants that...

The authors informed participants that...

Example 3: Describing research you conducted

We compared...

Our comparison of...

The table compared...

Avoiding subjectivity using the first person

Academic training requires students to support the claims they make by providing solid arguments and/or evidence. So, even when the first person is used in academic writing it can, and usually should, still sound objective.

How to sound objective using the first person when making a claim or stating an argument

The following examples illustrate ways to use the first person in your writing while sounding objective (i.e. making it clear that you are not just expressing an unsupported personal view and that you are concerned about facts and/or reasons rather than being influenced by personal feelings or biases).

I will argue that assisting developing countries to grow crops, such as tobacco and opium poppies, is not in their best long-term interests.

I think that assisting developing countries to grow crops, such as tobacco and opium poppies, is not in their best long-term interests.

I feel that assisting developing countries to grow crops, such as tobacco and opium poppies, is not in their best long-term interests.

The evidence I presented above indicates that paying benefits to high school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

In my opinion, paying benefits to high-school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

I believe that paying benefits to high-school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

I have presented reasons why educationalists need training in observing pupil behaviour to pick up on unexpressed needs.

As a teacher, I believe teachers need training in observing pupil behaviour to pick up on unexpressed needs.

How to use the first person in reflective writing

Reflective writing relies on personal experience, so it is necessary to use the first person.

The following examples illustrate some ways to use the first person in Reflective writing.

I found this experience positive...

I witnessed...

I succeeded in...

I achieved my goal...

I could have reacted differently in this situation...

Third person preference

Some disciplines/lecturers discourage the use of the first or second person ('I', 'we', 'you', etc.) and prefer the use of the third person because it makes writing sound objective.

How to avoid the first person

The following examples illustrate ways to write without using the first person.

Example 1: Structuring the essay

How gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviours will be examined.

Careful examination of gender and ethnicity factors shows how these affect buying behaviour.

In this essay, I will examine how gender and ethnicity factors affect buying behaviours.

Example 2: Making a claim or stating an argument

Assisting developing countries to grow crops such as tobacco and opium poppies is not in their best long-term interests.

I think that assisting developing countries to grow crops such as tobacco and opium poppies is not in their best long-term interests.

Example 3: Making a claim or stating an argument

Paying benefits to high school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

In my opinion, paying benefits to high-school students encourages them to stay at school when they would be better off in paid employment.

Example 4: Making a claim or stating an argument

Educationalists need training in observing pupil behaviour to pick up on unexpressed needs.

As a teacher, I believe teachers need training in observing pupil behaviour to pick up on unexpressed needs.

Example 5: Describing research you conducted

It was found that...

Participants in this study were informed that...

We informed participants that...

I found that...

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Last updated on 3 May, 2017

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