First person writing


I was sitting in Starbucks, waiting for an early morning flight, getting ready to go to Austin, Texas. It was pretty quiet in the airport, there was just the Starbucks soundtrack playing, so I thought I’d check up on my email. As I look at my inbox, I realize that I’ve been getting a lot of questions about writing lately.

About a month ago, I taught a workshop with Jason Byassee about writing and the pastoral life. We did the same workshop three times, which was a good thing, because so much of what we had to say was the same. So, by the third time around, we had figured what we were each going talk about, and we had it divvied up pretty well.

Jason talked about how the importance of writing newsletter articles well. He explained that it’s easier than ever to get published, especially if you’re willing to do the work of reviewing books. But, it’s harder than ever to make money from writing.

Most significantly, Jason emphasized the importance of pastors building a relationship with the editor of the local paper. Take them out to lunch. Ask what you can do for them. Because when something important happens and we need to speak out, then it will be crucial to have that relationship in place. He talked about being a pastor during the aftermath of September 11, and not being able to challenge the Anti-Muslim sentiment that arose in his local paper, because he didn’t have a relationship with the editor.

There was one place where we differed in opinion. Jason said that as an editor, he often encouraged people to rewrite everything so that there is no “I.” Kill every cliché and the first person pronoun, and your writing will be much stronger.

Of course, Jason and I write different sort of material. He’s an editor for the Christian Century and he writes theological books. “I” is not appropriate in the sort of material that he edits and writes.

I, on the other hand, write sermons, church newsletters, and blog posts. And even with my books, journal articles, and textbook material, I often use “I.”

There are many reasons for this. One is that people are interested in other people, and “I” has a way of embodying facts, stats, and arguments in a way that makes them a little more compelling, entertaining, and fun to read.

It’s also because I don’t really believe that writers have a fair and balanced view of anything. Good journalists and writers are passionate, and they usually have a point to make. As pastors, we come to a text carrying a heavy load of history and tradition. We open our text and ourselves, allowing the Sprit to completely transform us through the reading. But we’re still there.

Using “I” allows me to fully acknowledge that I am in the room. This is my perspective. I hope that there is something in the particularities of my story that has wide resonance, and perhaps even some truth in it, but nevertheless it is mine. For most of our writing that’s understood, since we are the ones standing in the pulpit or we have our names on the article. But I don’t mind if I go that extra step of including the first person pronoun.

Right now, the Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, acknowledges that her background helps her to form decisions. She even when so far as to say that it allows her to make better decisions, and since her background is not one of white privilege, there is great controversy about this. Limbaugh calls it “reverse racism.”

I call it justice. The fact that she has a particular background that she is willing to bring to the court, her ability to acknowledge how our experience shapes our reality, is a powerful and important claim. It’s true of every justice, including the white males.

We cannot divorce ourselves from our decisions, text, or writing. We bring ourselves to it.

So where do stand on this? Do you use “I” in your writing? Why or why not? Do you think it’s more interesting or less to hear a personal perspective? Or would you rather edit it out?

9 thoughts on “First person writing

  1. I use “I” a lot–mainly because it feels fake (or to use the more current term, inauthentic) to not use it. I dislike writing, speaking, or preaching that uses “you” because it feels like a combination if distant and arrogant. I dislike writing that has no pronouns because it feels forced and awkward. Why not claim that I am the one writing? I have distinct ideas, opinions, perspective, and baggage. I am a person as much as the people who will read or hear what I write. Unless I’m writing purely to give information, I am likely to creep into the writing–and even when I write purely for information, my voice speaks loud and clear! I consider it an advantage that my schooling did not train my voice out of my writing, and I think acknowledging that I speak from a particular place makes my writing stronger. As you said, no one has a fair and balanced view of anything, and in many ways the purpose of writing is to express a perspective…otherwise, why write about it?

    My much-less-than-two cents. 🙂

  2. One danger in using the ‘I’ perspective is in sermons. If preachers spend too much time talking about themselves, or do this too often, that comes across as egotistical. So I use personal stories in sermons only sparingly.

    Beyond this, I don’t mind reading things written from another person’s ‘I’ perspective. That’s fine.

    Peace to you.

  3. I am a retired (associate) professor and spent most of my 20 years at the University of Cincinnati helping students do their master’s and doctoral studies in education (My students and I specialized in how electronic technologies were changing the landscape of learning and instruction). Gradually, as qualitative research became more accepted in the mid-eighties, the criteria about never using “I” in a dissertation changed. By the time I retired (2007) the “I” was very much an acceptable way to write, even when discussing statistical work.

    I think the use of the “I” in dissertation work allowed the voice of the researcher to come through more authentically. While recognizing that there are times in scholarly work where speaking in the 3rd person may still be more acceptable, I hope the increasing use of “I” will be recommended to young scholars and writers.

  4. Chris,

    That’s a good point, and a point that Jason made as well. He said to never be the hero of your own story. I imagine that our sermons would get quite tedious if we were always the one saying “I told you so” in our sermons.

  5. I think it totally depends on context and genre. I do like personal perspectives, and gravitate toward genres like memoir, personal essay, and creative nonfiction where “I” is welcome.

    (I just got a kick out of writing such a grammar-bending sentence.)

  6. Hey Carol, thanks for writing about our seminar, I enjoyed working together. As we went on during the day I nuanced my insistence against the “I,” you may remember (perhaps it was in response to your off-record comment that “You must hate my writing.” I certainly don’t, so I had to rework my claim!). The “I” can indeed be effective in the writing and blogging I write and edit. So I think it should be reserved for when it’s effective and not used thoughtlessly. If it shows up constantly it runs the risk of looking self-fascinated. And if we’re guarded in when we use it, when we finally pull it out, a reader will take notice in the way we want them to. Some of this is directed to myself–I fear I use the I too much (eg. 4 first-person uses in that sentence alone!).

  7. Oh yes. I can be a little blunt sometimes! I was just sitting there there thinking, “Oh my… I use the first person in almost all of my writing….”

    I though that it was good to work with you as well. I hope we get a chance to do it again sometime.

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