Write in the first person

Published 2022-04-21.

A simple rule I try to follow when writing is to use the first person as much as possible. Whenever I am tempted to slip into the second person and use the general “you”—as in “you should do this”, “you might think this”, etc—I find it helpful to instead use “I” as the subject of the sentence.

This grammatical constraint is partly motivated by an aesthetic preference, which is that I want my writing to come across as descriptive and personal rather than prescriptive and detached. But even if I were to ignore the final aesthetic—say, if I were to write something in the first person and then change everything to second person at the last moment—the rule would still be valuable because it would nudge me to be more honest and authentic. It is much easier to hew to reality when my grammar keeps me focused on my own experiences, thoughts, and resolutions.

One exception to this rule is in titles. For instance, in the title of this very page is an imperative sentence, which implies the second person. I do this partly because it’s clearer to write “Write in the first person” than something like “I should write in the first person”. And partly I do it because in most cases, the titles of my notes and essays serve as pieces of advice to my future self. When I read the title of this note in the future, I will interpret it not as my past self exhorting others to write in the first person, but as my past self exhorting me to do so.

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