How to Be Yourself On The Page | Rachel Toor | 7 Min Read

July 3, 2023

Academic convention long eschewed first-person writing, for no good reason really. That is slowly changing. Even some scientists, trained to use the passive voice, have begun to understand that “The experiment was conducted” is no more technical than “We conducted an experiment.”

But understanding the power of first-person writing doesn’t mean you know how to wield it gracefully. When you’re writing for peers in your subfield, it’s appropriate and efficient to use jargon and minimize explanations of concepts that specialists can be expected to know. It’s a whole different story if you’re trying to reach readers outside of your small scholarly bubble, and that kind of writing requires, well, storytelling skills. That means you need characters. And the one you know best is you, the writer.

Graduate students and faculty members ask me about this a lot, because I have spent years offering writing advice to academics and worked in publishing early in my career before becoming a professor. The payoff in using first person is that the reader gets to know you, becomes invested in you, and (ideally) cares more about whatever information you’re presenting. Think of your best teachers. They weren’t the ones whose lectures simply delivered scads of information (although that’s important). They were people who conveyed that information in a compelling way, whose personality shone through, and whose foibles you not only noticed but found endearing.

Style can accomplish many things. As Pascal wrote, “When we come across a natural style, we are surprised and delighted; for we expected an author, and we find a man.” Or a woman. If you care about reaching people beyond those who are already in the room (as you should, and as more and more academics do), the easiest way to find a natural style in your writing is to be your fully human self and embrace your “I.” Here’s how to start.

Think of a specific person as your reader. Perhaps sitting down to write “for the public” feels overwhelming. So think about writing to someone like your favorite well-read aunt or family friend. She’s sharp, smart, and has no patience for pretension. She doesn’t need you to prove you’re a member of the club because she doesn’t give a hoot about clubs. She does, however, love to learn new things.

My ideal reader looks a whole lot like Virginia Woolf. I want…

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Rachel Toor

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program, in Spokane, and a former acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press and Duke University Press. Her most recent book is Write Your Way: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay, published by the University of Chicago Press. Her website is