What voice to write thesis in?
April 25, 2010 2:31 PM   Subscribe

ThesisFilter: What voice should I write my thesis in? First/second/third person? Active? Passive? Passive-agressive?

I just laid out the last several years of my life into roughly a hundred pages or so. And now I have to edit it into a coherent story.

I've been working as part of a small team developing algorithms and software for robots. Some of the work was collaborative, but much of it was done pretty much in isolation. How should I refer to myself in the text when talking about what I did?

My strategy so far has been to use the "royal we" pretty much throughout the document (we did X, our framework has Y), and when necessary to distinguish myself from others I refer to myself as "the author". I kind of hate the royal we, but "I" seems informal and/or egotistical, and I can't stand the passive voice (X was done).

I can find examples of all of these approaches in my peers' writing. Which one is your favorite? In which voice did you write your dissertation?
posted by ubermuffin to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This varies widely by field. The dissertation exists solely to fill requirements set by your field and your specific department. Ask one of the people who will be evaluating it.

(But if they say you're free to choose, then choose whatever's easiest or most pleasing for you.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:34 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always been partial to "I" in these situations. No sense in introducing artificial layers of abstraction when it's really by me, about me. There's a fine line between literary convention and obfuscation. The academic separation that killing the first person brings is the real egotism from this author's vantage point.
posted by Phyltre at 2:47 PM on April 25, 2010

Best answer: Don't use the passive voice. Stunk & White are wrong about it, but not for this.

Don't use passive-aggressive, the professors on your committee can provide enough of that on their own.

The 'we' thing is fine when it is clear your are talking about protocols that evolved more than one person, but not when it was clearly an individual effort. I think you should use first singular when you are talking about decission and actions you alone took. Damn the ego, full responsibility ownership ahead!

Ask your supervisor, that's what she's there for.
posted by Some1 at 3:01 PM on April 25, 2010

For science it's always passive past tense (so yeah, 'x was done'). That's what examiners expect, that's how journal papers are done (so it will be easier to convert for publication), and that's what avoids all problems of what to call yourself. I'm up to page 198 so far and have so far avoided any mention of we or I or 'the author'.

Also be careful about using 'we', a thesis is supposed to be one person's work and you don't want to give the idea you didn't actually do the stuff you're writing about. This is actually pretty important. My Uni has been known to request a document outlining who contributed what when there's any hint of collaboration and has rules about how much and what kind of outside input is allowed. You did the work, don't short change yourself.

Your supervisors are the ones to give you the answer to this though, because it really does vary a lot by subject and department and whatever, and in the end you need to use whatever your examiners are going to expect and enjoy the most. When it comes down to it the examiners opinion is the only one that matters. Might as well find out what they want now rather than have to change everything later.
posted by shelleycat at 3:03 PM on April 25, 2010

Find out what your thesis advisor prefers and do that. This definitely varies by field, and since you're finding variation with that, it's best to find out the preference of the person who will be grading you.

For what it's worth, I'm required to do mine in the third person.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:05 PM on April 25, 2010

People who care about doing well will tell you that some fields require the passive voice, and that if that's your field's tradition, you should follow it. I HATE the passive voice. If my peers told me to use it, I would argue with them. I never did well in school, because I refused to play by rules that didn't make sense to me.

The passive voice generally hinders communication. As animals that evolved in a world of graspable (or at least seeable and hearable) objects, we readily understand sentences about an agent doing something to another agent -- or to an object. We don't as easily understand things that just happen, via no apparent causal agent.
posted by grumblebee at 3:07 PM on April 25, 2010

I agree that the passive voice is awkward, but it's also standard in my field. However, if you are a good enough writer to be uncomfortable with the passive voice, you are also good enough to tweak the sentences to avoid the worst of it, usually by making the research or the data the hero instead of you. It's a sacrifice, but you will get used to it.
posted by dness2 at 3:15 PM on April 25, 2010

However, if you are a good enough writer to be uncomfortable with the passive voice, you are also good enough to tweak the sentences to avoid the worst of it, usually by making the research or the data the hero instead of you.

I like this description. Ideally the writing style won't even be noticed or commented apon, it's the least important part of everything in there.

I also found this article very helpful The Science of Scientific writing (pdf link). Set up a sentance and paragraph structure and you can pretty much just fill it in for each new paragraph without too much effort.

The passive voice generally hinders communication.

Actually, having a piece of writing that doesn't conform to the structure and style that you're used to reading hinders communication. The people examining a thesis are supposed to be experts in the field, they'll be reading this kind of scientific writing all the time and will be used to it. Anything different will stand out making them focus on that instead of the interesting work that ubermuffin has done. So it makes more sense for a student to write their thesis in the method most commonly used (whatever that turns out to be) even if it takes some effort to get good at it.
posted by shelleycat at 3:28 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Odds are pretty good that you and I are tendering dissertation documents to the same graduate program. I used the royal we for the same reasons you outlined. Good luck!
posted by tss at 3:53 PM on April 25, 2010

Response by poster: Ok, so far I've decided that passive voice is out -- I the appreciate arguments above in favor, but I can't quite get over the ick factor. I'll be negotiating the we/I/the author business in the days to come. Thanks everyone!

Oh, and tss - most definitely the same program. The internet is a small world indeed.
posted by ubermuffin at 6:58 PM on April 25, 2010

« Older Help an apt dweller cope with a house.   |   Grand Central to JFK? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.