Recently, swamped in the unequivocal disaster that is the second term of university, the changes in academic writing were again brought to my attention. One of my beloved professors (not even irony: she’s a sweetheart) stated in her opening remarks about the expectations for her course that she doesn’t mind the use of “I” in papers, as it is becoming more and more accepted in academia, however she considers using the impersonal “one” too stilted and stuffy to be seriously used anymore. (Personally, I am a supporter of “one” as a convenient, nonspecific honorary third person pronoun and will use it in my academic writing till the day I die, so this saddened me deeply.) But as I started thinking about it, I wondered why I dislike using “I” in academic writing. It’s not just that I consider “I” a characteristic of informal writing (such as this blog post), but there’s also a stronger reason that came to me as I was reading some articles for a completely different class.
The place where “I” shows up most often in academic articles is in the introduction paragraph and possibly the conclusion. Invariably, the author is articulating some element of what they’re arguing, maybe even the thesis: “I will be arguing that…” and then proceeding to give their position. Instead of simply presenting their thesis/argument as a statement, they qualify it by reminding the reader that they, the author, think this. In fiction, this is called filtering.
Filter words in fiction primarily come up when the narration only knows as much as the character it follows, either in first person point of view or third person limited point of view, but may show up in others. In first person and third-limited, they often appear like, “I saw the man coming toward me,” and “She saw the man coming toward her,” respectively. Unless there is some significance in the story to the main character seeing at that particular juncture, write “The man came toward her” and leave it at that.
Filtering feelings works the same but with different verbs: “I felt my guts clench” can be left at “My guts clenched” to impart more intensity to the reader.
When there’s an obvious correlation between the narration and the character experiencing the events, to reiterate who is viewing or experiencing something is redundant and limits the effect of the story. Using the filter verb in conjunction with the name or pronoun removes the reader from direct contact with the setting and events by reminding them of the “filter” (MC) that they’re viewing things through; a barrier has been effectively placed between them and the story, possibly even interrupting their suspension of disbelief. Part of the goal of fiction is to make your reader feel and experience what the MC feels and experiences, so leave out unnecessary reminders about whose story it really is (they know all that already) and let them identify.
The same is true of academic writing. The goal in an academic paper is not only to communicate but to convince: it’s called an “argument.” One of the ways to create a receptive listener for your ideas is by constructing your paper in such a way that takes the reader along with you and projects your position onto them as though it is also theirs. By the author obscuring their own presence and not self-identifying in the argument as the voice behind the words, the reader is more likely to substitute their own mental voice and thereby be more inclined first to identify it as correlating with their own ideas, and subsequently to accept its validity. Pretty slick, eh?
Of course, an academic reader should be more discerning and farsighted than to be completely taken in by the mode of presentation alone, but why make it easier for them? Make it a challenge to look beyond the phrasing as statement of fact to the actual evidence you use. If the writing style sucks, it is much easier for a reader, with little effort, to spot holes in the logic and pinpoint place where they disagree or the evidence is lacking. Don’t make it easier for critics by hobbling your brilliant brainchild with the academic equivalent of “That’s just my opinion!”