Thursday, January 21, 2010

The I is a... What?

Many moons ago, one of my Honours supervisors told me that I should never use "I" while writing. How would this work, I asked. Well, he said, use lots of passive constructions.

I took this advice on board, despite the attempts of my other supervisor to talk me out of it. I implemented the passive writing style, the stance of strange objectivity ("it must be noted...", "such-and-such will be considered"), to a fault over the course of my entire Honours dissertation. Since then, it has become a stylistic tic that I feel bound to employ whenever doing 'serious' writing (i.e. anything that takes place in a word processor).

But I feel I'm sick of it.

This, in part, comes off the back of reading many posts about writing style by Graham Harman over at Object-Oriented Philosophy. He has made the point a few times that style is a very contagious thing. What you read, you tend to emulate. Not only that, but style and content in writing are essentially indivisible. Groundbreaking ideas need stylistic oomph. Therefore, the moral of the story is: read good writers.

Well, I have been reading some good writers of late. And plenty of them say "I". This makes me think: it's time to put away the aversion to saying "I".

But these habits, adopted to please the supervisorial Big Other, are hard to drop. You feel illegitimate somehow, perhaps too casual, when you say "I". It is also a more nude position to be in: these opinions are claimed, straight away, as my thoughts, my assertions.

Which is ultimately probably a good thing. But nonetheless, confronting.

1 comment:

  1. My aversion to using "I" in essay writing stems from high school english. I remember my teacher hammering it home that the "I" gives an impression of partiality, whereas the passive is more convincing because it has an air of objectivity.
    I started to question this orthodoxy in my early undergraduate studies, when Microsoft Word's grammar check would keep picking on my passive constructions, as if there were something inherently wrong with them.
    I've now fully embraced the first person, and it feels liberating and much more natural. I am happy to "own" my arguments. Now, when I find myself beginning a passive construction, I stop and consider whether it's necessary. I probably have Microsoft to thank for that.
    However, I've never felt comfortable invoking "we" in my writing. It feels like an obvious conceit.
    In other news, my english teacher also insisted that paragraphs should be around 200 words in length. I've found this arbitrary prejudice harder to shake.
    - David Blencowe.