"Third-person" writing - why it is so hard, why it is so useful, and how to do it well."
For undergraduate / graduate students and writers of all kinds who are producing a thesis, research paper, news article, magazine / journal article, book or other written project.
Scenario: You have just written a research report. Your professor has assessed your report with a resulting "C" grade and the following feedback:
Why writing in "third-person" is so hard
Writing in third-person perspective is hard - much harder than first-person. Why? Because we see and experience the world through our own perspective - our patterns of beliefs, experiences, hopes, fears. We have opinions, thoughts, ideas, and desires. When we write, it is natural to tell our story from our own viewpoint. For example:
At first glance it may appear that this is a perfectly acceptable paragraph from a research report. Sure, it is, from a grade 9 high school student.
But it is not acceptable from a university student.
Why writing in "third-person" is so useful
In the above paragraph, what are the "facts" presented? There is only one probable fact:
"BP did not take immediate responsibility for the Horizon drilling rig accident."
The rest of the paragraph is a mix of unsubstantiated findings ("I found research to show that they thought they could place the blame on others..."), unsubstantiated conjecture ("While responsibility may have been shared with their business partners"), and personal opinion ("... I think that if they had taken immediate responsibility, it would have resulted in a much smaller public relations disaster.")
What do all these fancy terms mean?
In simple terms, they mean that you have only said one thing that is easily provable - the first sentence. All the rest is really fiction - things you made up.
In research terms, you haven't said much in your paragraph that is trustworthy because each sentence does not follow from a proven path of previous facts that are logically connected.
Third-person writing is useful because it forces a separation of the writer's personal perspective from provable facts and a logical chain of thinking. By using "it", "he", "she", "them", "their", etc. you are taking yourself out of the equation. You are forcing yourself to step back from what you are researching and writing about and try to see it without filtering information through your beliefs, experiences, hopes, fears, values, etc. You are removing as much of your own opinion from the analysis as possible.
By writing in third-person you are therefore writing something that is closer to a truth that is observable by another person - the reader. And you are now seeing the situation you are writing about from a neutral, uninvolved perspective.
Your writing is now more trustworthy from the perspective of believability.
Example of the paragraph used earlier, now written in third-person:
In this example, the writing is now factual or logically concluded from previous facts. And each research item is clearly referenced - perhaps with too much referencing, even!
How to write well in third-person
This is easy to do - sort of.
To write well in third-person, pretend you are an impartial judge in a court of law, reading out loud just the facts of a case at the start of a trial. At this point, no decision has been made as to guilt or innocence of the person charged, no blame laid, and no sentence given. Just the facts are being presented.
What does it feel like when you are reading out the facts of the case to the courtroom? As a judge, you are held in high esteem, trusted, and in a position of power. Would you be as respected, trusted, and accorded this position of power if you started not by reading just the facts, but with your opinion thrown in at same time?
It seems silly, doesn't it? But in fact, when you are writing with a mix of researched facts, conjecture, and opinion, you are doing the same thing: You are in trusted position of power as a researcher and analyst of the facts, but you are telling the reader your own opinion of them.
To write well in third-person perspective, remember that you are impartial - you are just there as an impartial judge - not to present your personal perspectives, unless you specifically asked to do so. Step back mentally and try to see what is really there, what others say about the "facts" you are finding, and what it all logically leads to.
There are a number of interesting "buts" to third-person writing concept:
1. "Writing in third-person is so BORING! It is all about facts and logic. What about FEELINGS?! What about right and wrong? Where's the human story? What about believing in something? What about ME and what I think and feel?!"
Research and third-person writing can be emotionally numbing. It is largely about left-brain thinking and analysis. And it is not always very interesting, particularly if you are a relationship oriented person (see the Success Orientations model for more on this).
Third-person writing has its place. And so do feelings, consideration of right and wrong, the human story, values, and you - your personal story and experience of things.
But they belong in separate types of writing.
For research papers that others have to read to learn facts from, understand a situation, draw conclusions from, and take actions that may have big implications and costs? Third-person writing.
For a biography, story, blog, journal, diary, or other personal human expression? First person is just fine...in fact it is necessary.
2. How can we know anything is really a fact?
You can't. But this is not a primer on philosophy, quantum physics, or spirituality. For this primer, assume that facts are things that can be observed by most people in a similar enough manner as to be considered the same.
3. When do I get to write in first-person?
Right now - or "write now" (ha, ha!) Writing in first-person is also about reflection, catharsis, integration, and learning. It is very, very important. So please: Start a blog, journal, or diary. Express yourself, even if you are the only reader. It feels really good to do so and you might just be helping someone else understand their own world, if you choose to share your writing with others.
The article © 2012 by Paul Kurucz. Please e-mail Paul with your thoughts so that this document can be improved. This document or any information on it may be quoted or reprinted for non-commercial use. However, please reference this site and recognize Paul Kurucz as the author of anything you copy from here. Thank you.