Book Notes: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid & Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

All the stars aligned, and something very wrong happened when I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid at the same time.

I read Little Fires Everywhere with a friend who is far better at pacing herself. When I got too far ahead, I put it down and picked up Such a Fun Age.

My local bookshop could only manage copy of Little Fires Everywhere with the Hulu series adaptation cover. I was forgiving. Now I’m kinda grateful.

While I waited for my friend to finish Little Fires, I wrapped up Such a Fun Age and binged on the Hulu series adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere.


Together, these stories articulated to me the unutterable—unutterable not because it shouldn’t be uttered but because some things are just too big for words. I can’t summarize what together they taught me about being Black in white spaces, especially ones that invite you in and beg you to stay. It felt like Little Fires Everywhere would start a sentence, the adaptation would rephrase it, and Such a Fun Age would finish it off with such potency that I’d have to sit back in quiet for a bit.

Pearl & Emira. I held them in parallel and saw what Reid’s and Ng’s characters couldn’t:

Everyone wants something from her. Those who love her await some kind of award. Those who give to her hold her as indebted.

Well-meaning white lovers refused to acknowledge the Blackness of their Black lovers: “I don’t see color.” White men fetishized Black women, even while they loved genuinely. White people collected Black friends like badges of wokeness. Black women internalized the message as some flavor of self-loathing. For Mai Ling, Chinese culture was equated to American fortune cookies, and everyone insisted that race didn’t matter.

All this savored and digested, I finally got to chat about Little Fires Everywhere with my friend. We’d only started when she corrected me: “Mia and Pearl are white.”

“No, they’re not.”

“Yes, they are.”

We googled Ng’s intentions. White working-class women. Hulu had taken inspiration and given it wings.

Well. I have rereading to do. Main themes remain intact—race is important in both stories—but I found parallels where there were none, or perhaps there were parallels, but ones that confronted the condition of women more universally, or social class as much as race. All I can say is that I’m ready to re-read and learn again.

Book Notes: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Noise, noise, noise filling the roaring silence. This was an uncomfortable read. The narrative was incessant and seemed always to roll right past me, leaving me with the feeling I’d missed something.

Nothing was happening. But I couldn’t put it down.

In the end, I found what was missing: It was Kathy H.’s outrage and despair. And this is where Ishiguro’s genius lies.

From cover to cover, our protagonist chatters on about the small and the meaningless, and with painstaking detail. Yet in all her obsessive rumination, she never once contemplates the horror that frames her entire short life and how she knows it will end. It’s like watching someone live in a rotting corpse of a house—ghosts and all—intent on filling its corners with gayly colored second-hand gaud and hiding its putrid walls beneath cheap chintzy wallpaper.

Ishiguro’s themes mirror the ongoing oppression in our social realities and the blind arguments we make to excuse them and keep them alive: They’re not like us. The subjugation of people of color by white power. The cruelty of the meat industry. Cold indifference. Outright denial.

But on a more personal level, I had to admit that Kathy H.’s (infuriating) dissociation was familiar. Don’t we all worry about lost cassette tapes, dirtying our favorite shirts, and petty arguments that we’ll soon forget, all the while ignoring bigger pain? Don’t we all just do what we can, with what we have, as long as we can? Distracting ourselves and filling the deafening silence with noise, noise, noise.

How’s that New Year’s writing resolution going?

One-twelfth of 2018 has come and gone, and as February rolls on, there’s a bit more elbow room in my yoga classes, my personal trainer’s schedule has opened up, and all over the world, stick-to-it planners are starting to collect a little dust. As that New-Year vigor begins to lose momentum, how’s that writing resolution of yours going?

I’ve just had a chat with Raphael, a would-be writer friend of mine. “How,” he asked, “can I finally overcome those (unnamable and unfathomable) barriers that have stopped me from seriously investing time into writing something meaningful?” It’s a dream that has whispered patiently from the back of his mind for years, but creating a writing habit that endures has eluded him.

For those of us who want our writing habits to be so much more than a well-intended push that’s bound to sputter and die away, how do we finally make good on those aspirations to write, to keep writing, and to finish something?

How to Make Good on Your New Year’s Writing Resolution

Developing any new habit is a challenge, but this can be particularly true for writing, which is so often pushed aside as less-than-a-priority on busy days. Here are some ideas for keeping this New Year’s promise to yourself and your future readers.

Photo by on Unsplash

Make it Easy on Yourself

In Lieberum’s ridiculously straightforward manual for finally bridging the gap between ambition and action, he addresses the strain on willpower in these earliest stages of habit formation. His advice is to make it easy on yourself.

What that means when developing a writing habit depends on when in your day you aspire to write, which tools you need, and what usually gets in the way. I like a first-thing-in-the-morning session before starting my workday. I must, therefore, make sitting down to write with my first cup of coffee the easiest thing I could do in the morning. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, let’s take a look at what usually gets in my way:

If I wake up with time to write, I tend to go straight to the kitchen and wake up the Nespresso machine. While I’m waiting for it to warm up and then to brew, I start tidying up the kitchen or the living room. Before I know it, I’ve finished my coffee and my house is neater, but I’ve got no writing done and it’s time to get focused on work. Other days, I spot whatever book I’m reading and think, I’ll just read a chapter and then get to writing. Or, worst of all, I make my coffee, forgo the housework, resist my book, and get onto my laptop, but then I get lost in my inbox or on social media.

The solution? Well, at night, after Paul and I finish dinner, we tidy everything up before heading to bed. Then, after a little pre-sleep reading, I tuck my book away into my nightstand drawer—I won’t even see it in the morning. And for the final bit, which is admittedly less than ideal for me, I have to write on paper to avoid the internet and its countless distractions altogether. I pack away my laptop at night and make sure that my notebook and my favorite pens and pencils are sitting exactly where I like to have my morning coffee.

Get Held Accountable

Each week, I have two calls with a lovely client named Desiree. We meet for some negotiated editing and slowly, her manuscript is moving along. Over these last several months, a pattern has emerged: Whatever progress Desiree has made since we last spoke was accomplished exactly just before or after one of our calls. Anticipating our session pushes her to be prepared for the next call.

Photo by on Unsplash

Of course, paying an editor for weekly coaching or writing support isn’t accessible for all of us. Luckily, there are several other options for finding accountability. On, for example, there are creative writing groups who meet biweekly or monthly to write together or give feedback on each other’s work over brunch, creating a sense of community and a built-in accountability group.

What tends to work for me are “writing dates.” I’m lucky enough to have several friends who write for various reasons, so I often plan a date with one of them, at a cafe or on a video call, and we’ll talk about what we’re working on and then use pomodoros to structure our co-writing sessions.

Give Yourself a Daily Objective

If you’re simply working on developing a writing habit but don’t have a particular project underway, give yourself an objective for each session. Planning to sit and write whatever comes to mind is problematic for those of us who may end up putting it off when we’re not sure what to write about.

Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash

For Raphael, who’s been traveling nonstop for several years and who is now considering writing a memoir, I suggested that he research several literary concepts and writing techniques. His memoir would cover the unreal experiences he’s had all over the world, the random strangers who changed his life, and most importantly, what it all did to him. I assigned him the following tasks:

  • Read up on the character arc and the three-act structure and spend some time each day outlining several approaches to the themes and organization of your memoir.
  • Spend a week playing with show, don’t tell. Pick some unforgettable moments that you’re sure to cover in your memoir and give the scene a go, focusing on show, don’t tell. Practice describing specific emotional experiences on different days.
    • Monday: Outrage (e.g., an experience, for example, that left you feeling cheated, mistreated, or angry)
    • Tuesday: Euphoria
    • Wednesday: Jealousy
    • Thursday: Vulnerability
    • Friday:  Gratitude
  • Take show, don’t tell into your character development. Instead of summarizing the personalities you’ve met along the way, show them to us in a scene where we can make our own judgements based on what they say and do. Focus on a different person each day.

Whatever your writing endeavors are, there are endless techniques and aspects of writing that you could focus on for a session.  Having an objective gives you a focus and therefore fewer excuses for putting it off. If you’re like me and the gratification of checking things off of a to-do list motivates you, definitely give this method a try.

Got more ideas on how to develop a writing habit? Please share them below. Tell us what works for you!




“Only idiots need editors.”

Ouch. I’ve literally just heard someone say, “Only idiots need editors.”

“Tell that to J.K. Rowling,” my husband responded. At that, my inner Macaulay Culkin (circa Home Alone 2) dropped on one knee and fist pumped with an emphatic “YES!” because:

(a) my guy reflexively stood up to a bully for me (which is awesome),
(b) he appreciates Rowling (which means he mustn’t hate the countless hours of HP talk I’ve subjected him to), and
(c) he gave me a great argument to use here in this article. Thanks, Paul!

Editing is a rather broad term that fails in every language I speak to cover the breadth and depth of what kind of support it actually is. This is why I think the perpetrator (insert stink-eye emoji here) probably meant no harm but spoke (at least primarily) from ignorance.

Editing is not spell-checking. Otherwise, you could ask just about anyone to review your writing, and even your word processor can tell the difference between their and there in context. (And by the way, it doesn’t take an idiot to overlook a spelling mistake.)

Instead, editing is an integral part of any manuscript’s lifecycle. Spelling is, of course, a concern, but there are different kinds of editing, and each is approached with a specific focus and varying degrees of intensity.

If you want to be less ignorant than that guy, check out this page for more on the kinds of editing that masterful authors have always depended on for professional, objective feedback and guidance in the development of their stories—fiction or otherwise.

P. S. A humble shout out to writer and J.K. Rowling’s editor, Arthur A. Levine, who doesn’t, in fact, work for an idiot.

Why You Should RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain

RUE (i.e., resist the urge to explain) is a brilliant yet common-sense concept from Browne and King, the authors of one my favorite editing resources, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. Importantly, this is not just a wise warning for fiction writers but a principle to be observed by nonfiction and academic writers as well.

What resist the urge to explain means is (hopefully) self-evident, but the grounds for RUE may be less so. There are plenty of reasons to avoid unnecessary explanation, but let’s skip the mindless enumeration and take a look at an example of R.U.E. in action.

Last night I watched Hidden Figures, a nonfiction-book-based film1 that follows three female African-American mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race with the USSR and, importantly, the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Let’s explore R.U.E. using my favorite line from the film, a simple yet powerful response delivered by Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan, an acting computer supervisor who is repeatedly denied an official promotion and the corresponding raise. After a brief but icy exchange that follows weeks of sharpening tension, her immediate supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, stops Spencer on her way out of the newly desegregated ladies’ room:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Spencer stops. Turning to look at Dunst, she says, “I know you probably believe that.”

Bazinga! Simple, yet powerful. As Spencer exits (leaving behind a thoughtful Ms. Dunst), I’m grinning like a buffoon and throwing a million mental high-fives in Spencer’s direction from my beanbag.

But what’s this got to do with R.U.E.? Let’s explore another take of this exchange:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says defensively, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Annoyed by the fact that Dunst clearly doesn’t get it, Spencer stops and turns to face her. “I know you probably believe that,” she says ironically. “Maybe you think you’re not racist, and maybe you aren’t consciously, but if being Black means that I’m less fit to be a supervisor than you, then I’d say, yes, you’re holding something against me: my skin color.”

Dunst was bewildered by Spencer’s accusation. She stood in stunned silence as she watched her leave.

Okay, I added a bunch of rubbish here, but hopefully I made my point. Not only have the explanations (of emotion, manner, and the meaning of the utterance) insulted our intelligence by assuming that (a) we wouldn’t have been able to figure it out on our own and (b) our imaginations wouldn’t have been able to fill in the blanks, the exchange has also completely lost its bazinga! factor. By adding “defensively,” I’ve intruded upon your interpretation of Dunst’s character and her statement. I’ve made it one-dimensional and “boxed it in” by limiting the way the readers’ imaginations may have played the scene out. Furthermore, we certainly didn’t need clarification that Dorothy’s statement was ironic or that her supervisor’s cluelessness really ground her gears.

In the case of fiction and creative writing, Browne and King’s discussion of RUE specifically addresses the naming of the emotion behind a character’s behavior or language, as in the addition of defensively and ironically to the dialogue tags and the description of the emotional states bewildered and annoyed. The trouble with descriptions like these are connected to the Show, Don’t Tell rule:

[The] tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. And more often than not, writers tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action. It’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so that it is. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 17)

In nonfiction and other genres, writers have to be cautious to avoid providing unnecessary explanations (like my addition of the meaning behind Spencer’s original line). Yes, of course, you should explain concepts or arguments that won’t be clear to your readers otherwise, but every reader can be assumed to have some level of critical-thinking ability, so don’t think for them.

A final quote from Browne and King on the work of a writer who managed to RUE throughout her novel. Although they’re still talking about fiction, the principle applies equally to all genres of writing:

Also, by never explaining her situations, by trusting her readers to keep up her, [the author] pays her readers the compliment of assuming them to be intelligent. And that’s a compliment any writer would do well to pass along. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 37)


1based on the autobiographical novel by Margot Lee Shetterly

Now Reading: The Circle by Dave Eggers

It’s been years since I read Eggers’s Zeitoun, a compelling true story that carries a message that is, unfortunately, as appropriate now as it was during the post-911 zeitgeist dominating the early 2000s. I say this because it was that same sense of relevancy that excited me about The Circle, published in 2013 and (apparently) widely acknowledged as one of the year’s best books. Yes, I’m rather late to the game, but I am, again, applauding the timeliness of the themes that emerge in the very first pages.

I’m a complete sucker for explorations of sociocultural forces that shape our reality (or our perceptions of it), especially when we get to dig into the implicit and the unspoken. Combine this with dystopian fiction and I’m hooked immediately.

One-Woman Book Club: Dave Egger’s The Circle

the-circle-dave-eggers-for-the-love-of-the-storyAs I write this, I’ve just finished the first few (unmarked) chapters—a dizzying introduction to Mae, the Circle, and a Brave-New-World-meets-Black-Mirror version of the near future. I feel quite like I imagine Mae did on her first day at the HQ of the dominating force in technology, innovation, and everything: eager, overwhelmed, and sure that I’ll have forgotten everything I’ve learned by the end of the day. Importantly though, I’ll not forget the sensations that each encounter and discovery left me with. I’m quickly developing the (vicarious) sense of excitement that only comes from feeling part of something big, a distaste for certain Circlers, a connection to others, a practiced eye-roll for the social media culture that pervades Mae’s context, and a healthy anticipation to learn where Mae’s journey will take me.

So far, it’s got a nice, quick pace, and I’m connecting fast and hard with the protagonist who’s all too easy to identify with: a serial major-changer in college, buried in student debt, and disenchanted with the traditional 9-to-5. Even better, the narrative is woven with subtle hints of sinister on the horizon—nothing compels me more!

Have you read it?

Narrator: Pigeon English (A Case Study)

The narrator in Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is one of those characters whose voice has so much texture that, asweh, I could hear it as clearly as if were there—on the balcony of Harri’s 9th-floor bare-boned flat in London’s project housing, eavesdropping on his very thoughts. In my mind, I see him so clearly—on his knees, working in quiet secret to lay out an irresistible trail of flour to lure a pigeon near.

The boy’s voice is so clearly his own that I’m sure he must be real. And it comes down to so much more than masterful use of dialect and idiosyncratic vocabulary and turn of phrase. A neighborhood boy is killed, a confused pigeon traps himself in Harri’s flat, a murder weapon is stashed, a man at a bar gives some drunken advice. All of this is brilliantly filtered through the innocence and imagination of an 11-year-old boy whose schema for making sense of life determines what he sees and what he does not. Importantly, Harri’s thoughts reveal more to us than he would ever even know. And, asweh, he broke my heart and made me laugh at the same time on multiple occasions. It wasn’t even fair.

X-Fire wouldn’t let us past. They were waiting outside the cafeteria. They were all standing in our way and they wouldn’t move. You didn’t know if it was a trick or for real.

Dizzy: ‘What’s up, pussy boys?’

Clipz: ‘I heard you failed the first test. That’s weak, man!’

I wanted to be a bomb. I wanted to knock them all down. That’s what it felt like. I kept waiting for him to laugh but his face was still hard like he meant it. Like we were enemies.

X-Fire: ‘Don’t worry, Ghana. I’ll think of something easier for you next time, you’ll be alright. What you got then, Ginger?’

Dean went all stiff. My belly went cold.

Dean: ‘I ain’t got nothing.’

Dizzy: ‘Don’t lie to us, man. What’s in your pockets? Show me.’

We couldn’t move. He had to show them or we’d never get past. It wasn’t even fair.

Dean: ‘I’ve got a quid, that’s it. I need it.’

Dizzy: ‘Yeah well, shit happens, innit.’

He took Dean’s quid. There was nothing you could do to stop it. He was very sad, you could tell. He should have put it back in his sock after dinner. I wished I had a quid instead but Mamma only gives me the correct money and no extra.

Dean: ‘F—ing hell, man.’

Dizzy: ‘Don’t be fronting me you little bitch, I’ll batter you.’

In the end they let us past. I felt sorry for Dean for having his quid stolen but I couldn’t help admiring it. I wish I could make them do what I say. If I was the big fish all the little fish would be scared of me. They’d get out of my way so I had the sea all to myself and all the food in it. I’d only let my favourite little fishes work for me, like when the pilot fish eats all the seadust off the shark to stop his gills getting all blocked up (I read about it in my Creatures of the Deep book, only 10p from the market).

Me: ‘It’s only cause I’m black. If you were black they’d let you in the gang as well.’

Dean: ‘I don’t wanna be in their stupid gang, all they do is rob people. Don’t go with them, they’re numpties.’

Me: ‘I was only pretending so they wouldn’t rough us too bad.’

Dean: ‘I hate them, man.’

Me: ‘Me too.’


1st Person Narrator: The Protagonist

Who is telling the story and how does it shape the story?

Harri’s point of view determines how the story is told: It is filtered through a child’s perspective, one shaped by his reality as a recent immigrant, who is both an other and an insider, who is from Ghana but has readily taken on all that he has learned from his peers in inner-city London.

His narration is told in the past-tense and changes form: immediate unfolding action, internal dialogue and reflection,

This is a highly intimate narration—we are eavesdropping on the things he sees, feels, and thinks. We know his secrets, the things he doesn’t tell anyone. But we’re limited by this. We don’t see Harri or any of the events from anyone else’s perspective. For example, he witnesses but does not note key details and clues about what happened to the dead boy. If another narrator’s perspective had shaped the telling, it would have taken a very different turn much earlier on.

Unreliable or Trustworthy? He’s a child, so we take that into account in our interpretation of his narration. We know we can see things he cannot, so we trust what he says because of his innocence, but we know that his interpretation is limited and/or flawed.

Also, what you gain in intimacy with the first person, you lose in perspective. You can’t write about anything your main character couldn’t know, which means you have to have your main character on the spot whenever you want to write an immediate scene. This can limit your plot-development possibilities. Also, when you write your entire novel from one point of view, your readers get to know only one character directly. Everyone else is filtered through your viewpoint character. One way around this is to write in the first person but from several different viewpoints—with different scenes done from inside the heads of different characters. This technique can be highly effective in the hands of an experienced writer.

Guess what? There’s one more narrator in Kelman’s gorgeous novel—a completely unexpected and infrequent narrator, one with a voice that offers a respite of sorts from the intimacy with Harri, the immediacy of his perspective, and the child-like rhythm of his thoughts:

I watched the sun come up and saw the boy off to school, I start every day with the taste of his dreams in my mouth. The taste of all your dreams. You look so blameless from up here, so busy. The way you flock around an object of curiosity, or take flight from an intrusion, we’re more alike than you give us credit for. But not too alike.

This is me nine stories up, perched on a windowsill quietly straining the peremnants of my last millet meal. This is me pitying you, that your lives are so short and nothing’s ever fair. I didn’t know the boy who died, he wasn’t mine. But I do know the shape of a mother’s grief, I know how it clings like those resilient blackberries that prosper by the side of the motorway. Sorry, and everything. Now watch your heads, I need to. There she blows. Don’t shoot the messenger.

1st person; (2nd person?) Past tense, trustworthiness? he’s a pigeon haha but he feels credible because of his empathy.



On I, Part 2: Alternatives to the First Person in Academic Writing

Avoidance of the first person in academic writing can serve to keep your readers’ focus on what matters: the findings. In other words, removing I removes the “youness” that may give readers an impression of subjectivity or distract attention away from the research. This is just one of a laundry list of reasons you might avoid the first person. Perhaps instead you’re drawn to the distance it affords (see On I: Part 1). Maybe “I” is forbidden by your dissertation committee, or it may simply disagree with your writing style.

Whatever the reason, both novice and seasoned writers choose to report their research through more impersonal prose. The trouble is, research is personal. You’ve been driven toward the subject by passion or interest. You’ve spent hours deliberating your approach, collecting the data, and analyzing and interpreting it. So how do you tuck away the inevitable intimacy of it all?

Alternatives to the First Person

A skilled writer can cleverly hide herself behind careful syntax and deliberated word choices, making it seem nearly as if the research conducted itself. Countless writers masterfully construct their manuscripts this way. Let’s consider some alternatives to the first person in academic writing:

Grammatical Subjects that Embody the Intended Focus

Words like this study, this project, the analysis, the evidence, the findings, the report, and this section can shift the focus off the writer and onto the study as demonstrated by Flowerdew and Wang (2016, p. 42):

This present case study incorporates both qualitative (in terms of a reflective account of editing) and quantitative (in terms of systematic analysis of a corpus of revision changes), with the hope of taking advantage of both types of approach.

There isn’t an I (or we) in sight. The authors describe what the case study incorporates rather than describing what they incorporated into their case study.

The Dummy Subject (The Expletive “It”)

Let’s consider a second option by looking again to our textual mentor, Flowerdew and Wang (2016; p. 42):

Since the data collected for this study come from manuscripts that were edited by the author’s editor, it is useful to describe briefly how he interacted with the original authors while trying to improve their manuscripts.

Here, instead of using metalanguage referring to themselves, such as we will describe, the authors used an it-phrase (i.e., it is useful) that renders this unnecessary in addition to providing a justification for the inclusion of the subject’s interactions. (Also note the use of the data as a subject of the verb come instead of we collected data.)

Compare personal language like we disagree with Rozycki and Johnson or we don’t believe that journal editors can judge with the it-phrases that Flowerdew and Wang (2016, p. 50) opted for below:

Therefore, it is premature to argue, as Rozcki and Johnson (2013, p. 166) did their paper, that it might be necessary for EAL authors to pay so much attention as they do now to grammatical issues or pay for editing services unless the journal editors or reviewers specifically make such requests.


From the perspective of journal editors, this means that it is impossible to objectively judge if a manuscript is intelligible or not.

The Passive Voice

The passive voice is a touchy subject that most committees and writing guides have an opinion about, but it is often cited as a legitimate means to avoiding the first person because it bypasses the mention of any actor at all.

Sticking with the same textual mentor, I found the following exemplary alternatives to potential (and successfully avoided) first-person phrases we placed and we loaded (p. 43):

Original sentences and revised sentences were placed into adjacent cells for comparison. Each pair of sentences was then loaded onto MaxQDA, a qualitative data analysis software tool.

The Third Person: The Researcher or the Author

The following example of this approach, taken from the same textual mentor (Flowerdew & Wang, 2016, p. 44), combines the use of the authors (in place of the first person) and the passive voice to keep the readers’ focus on the data treatment:

Revision changes of one research article (J01) were coded together by the two co-authors and an undergraduate research assistant (RA) to help the RA become familiar with the coding system.

But must you really avoid the first person in academic writing?

Despite warnings against the use of the first person in articles with open-and-shut titles like Writing No-No #1: Never Use 1st or 2nd Person, there are arguments against the need to hide yourself behind a veil of anonymity and objectivity as you report your research.

My presentation of our textual mentor (Flowerdew and Wong, 2016) has been a bit misleading up until this point because the authors do in fact use the first person in their published academic article (p. 43):

When analyzing the data, we were particularly interested in developing a taxonomy that can systematically describe the revision changes, taking into account the research insights from previous studies.

GASP! Not only did they use the first person, but they’re explicitly referring to their interests! Here’s a second instance (p. 49):

In this discussion section, we will respond to the three research questions posed earlier in the article.

These published researchers shamelessly bring themselves into the picture. And why not?

In my next article on the first person, I’ll make a case for revealing yourself in your writing for the sake of ownership and in the name of style. Yes, I’m talking about my about academic writing, and I just said style.

Coming Soon: On I, Part 3: Why You Should Write Your Dissertation in the First Person


Flowerdew, J. & Wang, S. H. (2016). Author’s editor revisions to manuscripts published in international journals. Journal of Second Language Writing, 32, 39-52.


Me, Myself, &… The Researcher? The First Person in Academic Writing

In our secondary school years, our teachers cautioned us against the use of the first person in expository writing. Through lectures and the red pen, we learned to fear the formidable power of I.  Why? As a composition teacher, my own words of caution against the use of the first person in academic writing were less about its weaknesses than a lack of reverence for its potential.

But while I is vulnerable to abuse and misuse, thoughtful writers can wield the powers of a first-person narrative to create effective, engaging content—even in the academic arena.

The Trouble with the First Person in Academic Writing

For graduate students and PhD candidates, apprehension towards the first person is rooted deeply throughout the slippery slopes of the inescapable ideology that pervades the scientific community: Just consider the dialectic title of medical researcher William Martin’s (2013) article,  Science is dispassionate, we are told.

In the interest of contributing objective truth to collective scientific knowledge, we believe that we must approach our research and writing with noble detachment—we must keep it impersonal. This conviction feeds first-person anxiety, for what word can make it feel more personal than I?

Apprehensive writers therefore give the imposing first-person pronouns a wide berth, a difficult task considering that it is the writer who is at the very heart of every step in the research process.

The result? Well, there is more than one possibility, but before I delve into the potentially problematic writing of I-fearers (later in this series), I’ll consider the devices of masterful first-person avoidance.  Read On: On I, Part 2: Alternatives to the First Person in Academic Writing

Why Good Words Go Missing

As a careful writer, I craft my sentences with something akin to obsession. My writing process is a reiterative cycle: write, rewrite, delete, write, tweak, and rewrite again. I select every word deliberately. I organize every paragraph with intention.

For choosy writers who can relate to this—those of you who don’t write anything haphazardly—getting the revised manuscript back from the editor can sometimes leave you feeling… wounded.

You’ll recognize the motives behind most revisions, but others may baffle you. Some of my clients have asked for clarity:

“My sentence was grammatically sound. So, why did my editor delete perfectly good words?”

Why Good Words Go Missing

When the manuscript comes back from the editor, it’s up to you to consider the revisions and to either accept or reject the proposed changes. You may find that the revised version has a (substantially) lower word count than the draft you submitted. But why? Where did all your words go?

53068728My favorite way to answer this is through three words borrowed from the American Psychological Association’s (2010) publication guide: Economy of Expression.

They advise, “[s]ay only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 67).

You may not be concerned with getting published, but every writer should be concerned about wordiness and needless repetition. In Zinsser’s (1976/2006) classic writing guide, he warns against clutter in various forms, such as phrasal verbs that needn’t be phrasal (e.g. free up) and descriptive words that don’t add any meaning (e.g. tall skyscraper).

To illustrate what this looks like in academic writing, let’s identify some elements that don’t lend any clarity or deeper meaning to these sentences (taken from an early draft of one of my research reports—gulp):

The two languages have the same nasal and glide inventories in common (i.e., /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/; /w/ and /j/) with some differences in phonotactic constraints, which I will explore later in this discussion.

What does “in common” tell us that “have the same” does not? Nothing. It’s redundant and unnecessary. (Cut from the team!) Furthermore, “two” is unbearably unnecessary considering that this comes from an analysis comparing exactly two languages’ sound systems. (You’re out!) And while we’re at it, announcing that I would explore the topic later “in the discussion” was probably just as superfluous—where else would I mean? If we’re worried about “later” seeming lonely at the end of the sentence (and I do worry about words feeling lonely), perhaps “in a later section” would work better.

Let’s look at one more:

According to the informants, these words are reported to be palatalized in rapid, casual speech as /ʤan/ and /ʤos/, whereas standard, deliberate, and formal pronunciations would be produced as /djan/ and /djos/.

Having been disconnected from the manuscript for several years at this point, the phrase “are reported to” above seems blatantly needless to me now, not to mention nonsensical if you reflect on it for a moment longer (my informants explained some variation and produced the sound for me—they did not tell me that it has been reported that the sound is sometimes palatalized!).

Clearly, not even cautious writers are safe from the pitfalls of excessive, needless language. We can do our messages justice with fewer words and greater precision, especially in academic writing where content brings its own weight in complexity.

Strengthen Your Writing: Clear the Clutter

Let’s get economical. Below, I’ve shared some sample sentences taken either from my own writing or from clients who’ve kindly agreed to let their work be shared anonymously. Take a look and consider how you might improve them. Are there any needless words that can be removed? Are there complicated, wordy phrases that can be replaced with a simpler one? After you’ve examined the samples and imagined a solution, compare your approach to mine.

  1. In his own study, Wikström (2014) demonstrated the way that hashtags are multifunctional linguistic devices, facilitating far more than mere topic classification.
  2. However infrequent, it is true that whom continues to serve a purpose in certain genres, and, indeed, some writers still make use of it appropriately, even if they are confined to academia and scholarly writing.
  3. The connection between the first two criteria and size is less straightforward than simply stating “more is better.”
  4. During the interview, it became quite clear that the informant’s view of herself in terms of her cultural identity was far from simple. When asked where she is from, she responded, “I’m from Syria,” and yet this is only a part of the answer.
  5. This may be viewed as an example of scaffolding that is “contingent on actual need” (Van Patten & Williams, 2007, loc. 5559), as Milly provides only that which is minimally necessary for Lacy to make the appropriate connections. The explanations do not provide anything beyond what Lacy needs.

Finally, consider the three variations of the same sentence below, ranging from needlessly wordy to simple and precise:

  • To speak as frankly as possible my dear, I really just don’t give much of a damn.
  • To speak frankly my dear, I just don’t give a damn.
  • Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

The added words (and unforgivable hedging) do nothing more than dilute the utterance of whatever quality made Rhett so perfectly quotable. So, what’s the take away?

Extra words don’t give extra meaning. In academic writing, long and complex sentences are inevitable. Ease the task of your reader and give your manuscript readability. If you’ve got an editor that you trust, take a long, hard look at the words that he or she nominated for removal and consider the possibility that fewer words can actually accomplish more.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Zinsser, W. (1976/2006). On writing well. New York, NY: HarperCollins.