The Powerful First Person

by admin on April 1, 2012

Inexperienced writers, including most college students, often report that the greatest difficulty they have with essays is writing the introduction. My students tell me that they know an introduction has to be powerful, to grab the reader’s attention right from the beginning, and to explain in brief what their argument will be and how they plan to approach it, without revealing everything up front. But most of them don’t know how to write such an introduction. “Start simple,” I like to tell them, “first write something that introduces the argument properly, then think about making it dramatic.” Although I am sick of reading dry introductions that enumerate the structure of the paper but don’t really make me want to read on, I think developing the technical ability to write them is an important step in becoming a really good writer.

Last week, I wanted to show my students a good example of such an introduction. So I quoted the following passage from Baki Tezcan’s book The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World (Cambridge University Press, 2010). This is how Tezcan begins his 6th chapter, on page 191:

In this chapter, I first paint a broad picture of the polity that was consolidated in the aftermath of the regicide, as l address this question: what did the Second Empire mean politically after the contestation for its control was over – or at least after the first round of this contestation? Then I paint in some details of this picture with a sharp focus on the janissaries, the leading actors of the Second Empire. In the last chapter my discussion of the political role of the central army concentrated on the cavalry troops because they were the ones who started the chain of revolts in the late sixteenth century. Although the cavalry troops were also active in the deposition of Osman II and a number of other incidents in the seventeenth century, it was the janissaries who ultimately ended up being recorded in twentieth-century Ottoman historiography as one of the two main culprits responsible for the Onoman decline, the other being the ulema. The janissaries surpassed the cavalry troops in the political capital they accumulated throughout the seventeenth century. They eventually became the symbol of the Ottoman ancien regime in the eyes of those who chose to call the order they instituted in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the “New Order.”

Drawing my students’ attention to the phrases I emphasized in orange, I explained how this is a good – yet not always very attractive – way of introducing an argument. I added that the author could have done a better job by not using the same verb twice (paint), and generally, recommended employing several verbs that convey the message that this is my argument and that is how I plan to develop it. Such verbs include:

Show, demonstrate, argue, claim, portray, depict, describe, illustrate, explore, explain, emphasize.

My students’ main concern with Tezcan’s passage was not the dry language. It was his choice (and my recommendation to them) to use the first person. “We were taught never to use I or We,” they said, “but always to say one or to avoid a person or a voice altogether.” A bit baffled, I asked them who told them such a thing. High school English teachers, and some professors here at Emory, they said.

Why would any teacher try to silence their students’ voices is beyond me. A teacher who instructs his students to avoid the first person is shooting himself or herself in the foot. As it is, students find it really difficult to write powerful and convincing essays nowadays. As teachers we have to spend hours correcting and editing subpar language that wouldn’t even be spoken in the most informal settings. Why would anyone want to discourage his or her students by requiring the elimination of one of the only elements that makes an argument compelling? When I  write: “this essay will argue,” I am telling my readers what to expect, but I am hiding my own voice. By writing “I argue,” I claim ownership of my argument, which in turn tells the reader I am very confident as a writer. It also implies that what I am about to say is important enough for others to read. Therefore, there is no reason to tell students not to use the first person. On the contrary, teachers should encourage it. College students have plenty of reasons to feel and convey lack of conviction in their writing. Why give them another one?

Unfortunately, teachers and professors give such mediocre writing advice all the time (that is, if they bother to comment on their students’ writing at all). Even a prestigious program as Harvard’s Writing Center includes a recommendation to avoid first person on its guide to writing history papers. My only guess is that such advice has been passing on from one generation of teachers to the next without anyone ever bothering to check its origins or validity. It is thus equivalent to many teachers’ insistence on not starting a sentence or a paragraph with and or but, or not ending one with a preposition, both practices that have no ground in the history of English writing, and that leading English usage dictionaries discourage.

So, I told my dear students, use the first person. All the time. As much as you want. Feel empowered to write captivating introductions. And if your other professors tell you not to, well, first stick to their rules; then, gently suggest that they take a look at Strunk’s Elements of Style, where such preposterous writing myths are once and for all shattered.


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