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Personal writing

Andrew Steeds

It strikes me that people don’t think enough about what person they’re going to write a piece in – or, if they do, they don’t then think enough about the different effects they might achieve if they were to write the piece in a different person.

The choice of person can have a significant impact on the readers’ reaction to it. The idea is that the choice of person establishes the relationship the writer is seeking with the reader. Put crudely, it goes something like this:

First person singular (‘I’) – confessional (and therefore engaging?), deliberately reductive, subjective, the obvious choice for media such as twitter

Second person (‘you’) – instructional, one-sided, the choice of handbooks, recipe books and so on; can give the reader the warm feeling that they are being addressed personally, but only if the writer has correctly second-guessed the reader’s interests, motivations and preferences

Third person singular and plural (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘they’) – objective, external, exclusive, dispassionate, the inevitable choice of academic writing and of most formal writing where the content is always more important than the container

First person plural (‘we’) – inclusive, consensual, informal, subjective, the choice of the politician and of all other writers who are attempting to establish common territory with their readers

These characteristics are neither fixed nor guaranteed, of course. Skilful novelists can use the third person as if it’s tantamount to the first person, the reader’s empathy breaking through the apparent language barrier. The second person is often a front for the first person plural, writers and comedians using it to good effect to implicate readers and listeners in attitudes or experiences they’d want to disassociate themselves from. And a first-person narrative can just as easily alienate readers as engage them, often deliberately (The Collector by John Fowles comes to mind as an example of the narrator drawing the reader into a psychosis they’d rather avoid). As with all aspects of language, the fun is in both observing and playing with these conventions and seeing what the effect is of breaking some of the ‘rules’.

You can also get it drastically wrong, of course, although, interestingly, more often with the second person and the first person plural than with the others. These two forms are recommended by organisations keen on promoting plain English, on the basis that they most closely mirror the way in which we talk. But both of them depend crucially on the reader’s readiness to play the role of the person being addressed – and if they feel they are being talked down to, or badgered, then they are less likely to want to continue to read.

All this came to mind when I was flicking through a publication I’d worked on for what was then called the adult core curriculum (the adults in question having missed out on education the first time round, for the myriad range of possible reasons).

The publication was part of a suite of publications that was among the most complicated I have ever worked on. But what I remember most of all was spending a whole afternoon with a team of writers and project managers trying to decide whether to use ‘we’ or ‘you’ when talking to the learner (and so much time was spent on deciding whether to call the learner ‘learner’ as opposed to ‘student’ or … I can’t remember the other alternatives). The pitch for ‘we’ was that it established that the process of learning, and the state of ignorance which preceded it, was something we had all gone through – so we were all in it together. The argument against this was that it was disingenuous: even if the state of ignorance and the process of learning were common to learner and writer, the current positions of writer/teacher and learner were anything but the same. The case for ‘you’ was that it more honestly and accurately reflected the actual flow of information and support, coming quickly to the point – ‘You have a need; I/we are going to help you meet it’ (in those days, you were allowed to say ‘help’: its imperialist, deficit-model characteristics had not yet been laid bare) – and establishing trust. The case against it was that it would prove impossible not to end up talking down to the learner, who would therefore end up feeling – yes, that word again – patronised and would switch off.

In the event, ‘you’ won the day, but it was a split decision. And the process had taken a full three hours.

Two related incidents. I was advising someone on their CV the other day. She had originally written it in the first person (as seemed entirely logical to me) but had been advised by the standard bevvy of advisers, experts and consultants that it would be taken seriously only if it were written in the third person. This – which is what we ended up doing – had the bizarre effect of making the document sound as if some automoton was writing a biography about themselves, rather than the autobiography that it so obviously should have been. Perhaps for the same reason it seemed to ‘big’ her up a bit more than the first person would have done. And it also led to some neat convolutions as in ‘Continues to serve on the board of SuchandSuch as a non-executive director after she had resigned … ’ It doesn’t feel particularly reassuring to think that there is a whole sector of corporate Britain that is predicated on the elimination of the personal in day-to-day working life.

The last incident involved my daughter’s ‘personal’ statement for her university application. I have no memory of ever having to write such a document myself (though I’m sure there must have been an equivalent) and I certainly wasn’t offered the welter of advice that students receive these days. My daughter had at least six people proffer advice on her statement, much of it contradictory, all of it offered with the certainty that the adviser knew what they were talking about. On the day before the statement was due to be submitted, my daughter had a bit of a meltdown, rounding off her rant with the line: ‘Everyone seems not to be noticing the word “personal” in this; it’s meant to be my personal statement, and I can’t see anything of myself in it any longer.’

I feel that’s kind of made my point, though I’m not entirely sure what that point is any longer!

We feel that’s kind of made our point, though we’re not entirely sure what that point is any longer!

You kind of feel that’s made the point, hasn’t it, though what that point might be isn’t clear any longer!

He feels that that encapsulates the point he was striving to make, although the precise nature of that point is one about which he remains somewhat unclear.