Academic Writing - No first person
January 17, 2009 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Academic writing without using I or me, list of good phrases and verbs.....

I am writing my Masters Dissertation and I am getting fed up of finding ways of avoiding:

"i decided to ...." or "I interviewed"

and turning it into:

"the author interviewed..." or "it was decided to'

can you throw me some good, strong academic phrases, intros and generally strong words to get my juices going again.

posted by trashcan to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a few:

"The conclusion that was found"
"The interview with X revealed that"
"As X confirms, [QUOTE HERE]"

What's your dissertation about? Your discipline greatly affects the words available at your disposal.
posted by JTKestrel at 3:34 PM on January 17, 2009

Response by poster: it's about succession planning in a family business
posted by trashcan at 3:36 PM on January 17, 2009

Compare JTKestrel's suggestions to your examples - note how the sentence structure is completely different.

Your research will entail reading journal articles - re-read some of them and focus on the writing style and not content - chances are that is the accepted and expected norm in your field.

If you decided to do that it would be a good idea to pick one article you enjoyed reading and one you had to struggle through - it may have been the style and not the subject that made one good to read and one less so.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:58 PM on January 17, 2009

I would strongly avoid "it was decided to," "the conclusion that was found" and other uses of passive voice.

This is Rule 11 for Strunk and White: "The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

IMO, this should be a top five rule.
posted by ewiar at 3:58 PM on January 17, 2009 [4 favorites]

*would strongly suggest avoiding...
posted by ewiar at 3:59 PM on January 17, 2009

I don't know. I generally used the first person anyway in my academic writing, and appear to have gotten away with it (and in history, no less). Probably better to use the first person from a writing standpoint than increasingly convoluted uses of the third person or the passive voice, but you may well be hamstrung by academic writing guidelines that prohibit good writing. (No, I'm not being sarcastic. Why?)

Having said that, even if you can get away with using the first person, it should probably be done sparingly, to avoid the charge that you're writing a memoir and not a thesis. Still, you should be able to avoid referring to yourself in the third person or using the passive voice. Simply cut that stuff right out; a lot of it could be strunk-and-whited out for being extraneous.

Instead of "I interviewed x", say "In an interview, x said." "I concluded" or "I decided" should be rewritten in a way that makes the conclusion self-evident, rather than your personal point of view: "I decided to use x methodology for the following reasons" becomes "In this case, x methology offers a number of advantages" and so forth.

Of course, I was also a proponent of foul language in academic writing too, so I might not be the best resource.
posted by mcwetboy at 4:01 PM on January 17, 2009

Before you go eliminating all the first person pronouns, read another thesis/dissertation in your field. Did the other students use I and We? What phrases did they use if they didn't? Did it still sound awkward? Does your adviser have anything to say about the use of active versus passive verbs? Passive constructions sound so meek and timid to me, I'd rather read a strong active "I believe . . ." especially when you're supposed to be presenting original research.

Also, previously.
posted by Mouse Army at 4:04 PM on January 17, 2009

It's not a word game.

It's not enough to say "it was decided to do X because of Y" instead of "I decided to do X because of Y." Unless you are the subject of your dissertation, you don't enter into it. These are the kinds of style problems that sometimes indicate thought problems. Focus on your subject with detailed analysis: "Procedure A showed evidence of Y. Y would be undesirable because of factor N. Procedure B showed no evidence of Y, which indicated that X would be a better solution."

Giving examples of that in the abstract is hard. If I were you, I'd go to the university library and thumb-trough some sample dissertations.
posted by paulg at 4:10 PM on January 17, 2009

Instead of something like, "I decided to use the Willy-Nilly test to evaluate this data and found that the Wazzat hypothesis held," try "Using the Willy-Nilly test, we see that the Wazzat hypothesis holds."

Another thing is: while "I" is highly frowned upon, "We" is not. This may be a hard sciency type thing, so YMMV. It's a useful convention, though, because it makes the sentence in my first paragraph writable without contortion.
posted by TypographicalError at 4:12 PM on January 17, 2009

Use the first person. This is standard in academic writing. That third person stuff is so 1970s. If your disseration committee disagrees, introduce them to some nice people from your university's English department, or add a committee member that earned their degree after Watergate.
posted by Crotalus at 4:30 PM on January 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The thing to remember is, in fields where the first person is avoided, it's not just a finicky grammatical rule; there's a reason for it. The story of your research should not be the story of you; the story of your research should foreground the methods and findings that that will be of interest to other researchers.

So for example, in the case of "I interviewed" or "the author interviewed," the idea is that it shouldn't matter who conducts the interview. So, what does matter? The number of interviewees? Their demographics? ("Sixteen armadillo herders representing a proportional sampling of ethnic backgrounds were interviewed.") The methodology? ("Interviews were conducted on site at the armadillo ranch, and the subjects were offered compensation equivalent to an hour's wage.") There are lots of ways of rearranging sentences:
  • [People] were interviewed.
  • Interviews were conducted / carried out / performed / scheduled / arranged / designed / etc
  • Interviewees included / comprised / represented
  • Interview subjects were solicited / were invited / were asked
  • Interviewing took place [where/how]
  • [questions] were posed at a series of interviews.
  • [information] was ascertained via interviews.
  • [preliminary research methods] were followed up by interviews with [selected subjects].
The key is to decide what the important part of the story is and feature it, not yourself.
posted by Orinda at 4:40 PM on January 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

My advisor, at least in (mathematics) papers, uses 'we', because he thinks of the paper as a dialog between the author and the reader.
posted by leahwrenn at 4:40 PM on January 17, 2009

The author of this comment contends that passive voice should not be used in academic writing. The author further asserts that using a phrase like "I interviewed . . ." does not place you within the dissertation any more than a shitty phrase like "The author interviewed . . .". Finally, it is concluded that anyone who sends an article filled with passive voice constructions to a decent journal will get bitch-slapped by peer reviewers.
posted by Crotalus at 4:50 PM on January 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

PLEASE avoid passive voice ("Dr. Jones was interviewed").

Why not just write, "In an interview, Dr. Jones said..." or "when interviewed, Dr. Jones admitted..." You could also just leave out the interview part and write, "Dr. Jones said..." As a reader, I would prefer that, because I don't really care whether he said what he said in an interview or a lecture. I just care what he said. If it's important to cite the fact that you conducted the interview, do so in a footnote or endnote: Dr. Jones said, "blah blah blah."*

That said, if there are rules then I guess you have to follow them, but this whole avoidance of "I" think is incredibly stupid. If you conducted an interview, the natural and honest thing to do is to write about YOUR interview. I would double check with your advisers to see if "I" is really forbidden.
posted by grumblebee at 5:08 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Use the first person. This is standard in academic writing.

This is irresponsible advice. Nothing is "standard in academic writing"; it all depends on the field and the department. You do not know the poster's department or the adviser's preferences. The poster asked for a variety of ways to avoid the first person, and that's what the answers should focus on.

And to those of you damning the passive voice, Strunk & White is a goldmine of bad advice. Stop trotting it out as if it were ultimate wisdom. In some situations, it makes sense to substitute active sentences for passive where it can be effectively done, but context is all.

To the poster: Follow koahiatamadl's advice: read journal articles in your field (those by your adviser would be ideal) and copy their style as closely as possible.
posted by languagehat at 5:47 PM on January 17, 2009 [9 favorites]

Yes, I think languagehat has it. My doctoral dissertation was all in the first person, I was expressly told to use this. I have friends in other fields who were expressly forbidden from using the first person. It's field/department/advisor specific.
posted by ob at 6:05 PM on January 17, 2009

I didn't suggest avoiding passive voice because I'm kowtowing to Strunk and White. I haven't read their book in over twenty years and don't much care about it. In my view, the point of writing is to create images (and other sensations) for the reader. This is especially important when writing about abstract ideas. Your goal should be to make those ideas as concrete as possible. "John interviewed Fred" is easy to visualize; "Fred was interviewed" is not. That's my only problem with it. We can only easily visualize agents doing things to objects or other agents. Someone has to be doing something.

Of course trashcan should follow the rules of his department. But I hope no academic rules champion passive voice over use of a simple construct like "I." Why would they do that?

I also agree with languahehat that dogma sucks. Sure, passive voice has it's uses. But those are, hopefully, few and far between.
posted by grumblebee at 8:30 PM on January 17, 2009

Like Orinda said, this is not a pithy word game. Your responsibility is to report the facts as they are. By introducing I, you are ducking that responsibility -- you are implying that it matter which person did the observing, when it does not.

If the grapes are blue, say
The grapes were blue.
Don't say
When I was in the garden, I saw that the grapes were blue, but I was felling sorrow that day, so someone else might have seen differently.
When you turn "I interviewed" into "the author interviewed," you are missing the point. Both forms fail to take your subjectiveness out of the exposition. Inversely, by keeping I out, you give yourself the possibility of reintroducing it when it does matters.
Myself, with my 30 years of experience of this particular subject, and after I spent as much effort as I could invest, I have failed to reproduce the claims made in Johnson et al. 2002, thus I must suppose that they might be fraudulent.
In that sentence, the reputation and experience of the person making the claim very much matters indeed.
posted by gmarceau at 12:09 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "can you throw me some good, strong academic phrases"

The Academic Phrasebank is a general resource for academic writers. It is a 'bank' of phrases and terms used in academic writing and covers areas such as introducing your work, critical writing, reporting results and writing conclusions.

Annoyingly, the site isn't up at the moment (it was a few weeks ago), but you can still get to it via the Wayback Machine.
posted by siskin at 12:34 AM on January 18, 2009

Response by poster:
The pharasebank website has changed to:

Academic Phrasebank

(thanks google)
posted by trashcan at 4:59 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmmm...languagehat has some darned good advice there. I would also browse a few good post-Strunk&White grammars. Most recently, Joseph William's Style: Ten Lessons on Clarity and Grace (just came out with revised edition) really helps understand what decisions a professional "academic" writer makes when deciding to use active vs. passive voice, appositive phrases, etc. Also a good standard reference is the St. Martin's Handbook, that's edited by Andrea Lunsford (still, I think). Other (more textbookish) titles sitting here on my shelf that I know less about are Kolln's Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects, and Kennedy & Kennedy Writing in the Disicplines: A Reader and Rhetoric for Academic Writers. None of these are going to tell you what to do, but they will give you a contextual framework for making your own writing-related decisions with respect to the situation you are talking about.
posted by mrmojoflying at 9:28 AM on January 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Sure, passive voice has it's uses. But those are, hopefully, few and far between.

Indeed it does have its uses, critical ones at that. Strunk & White are an important piece of writing history, but that text comes out of a different era of writing education that simply doesn't meet modern needs. As far as passive voice, not every text, or narrative, is exclusively agent driven, though it is more so in "creative writing" where we learn all that garbage about exterminating the passive voice because it is "bad!" In the disciplines of technical and business writing (among most others), it's really important to have a sophisticated control over using passive voice appropriate to the context and audience. You will notice that in a lot of government documents you will find a lot of passive voice. To constantly refer to the agent in these documents would be redundant, because the agent is obvious and assumed, it's the government. Since we know who performed the action, what we need to know is lots of details about what the object of the action is, hence passive voice. People will say that this makes government documents hard to read, and it does for the layman, but technical writing is never written for the lay person, it is written for the technical expert in a manner that is familiar and appropriate to the situation. Stylistically, passive voice also works to subordinate ideas. Once the agent is established and mapped out, then potentially less important information can be signaled through a passive construction. It does important framing work as well, it establishes an epistemological relationship with the content it expresses and this lets the reader know "stuff" about what they're reading. Proper control of passive voice is a powerful tool to a writer in any field.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:40 PM on January 18, 2009

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