Rethinking the “I-Rule”

“Why is Dad wearing a white tux?” I asked.  Sitting on my parents’ 1963 flowered couch, I lowered the old wedding photographs carefully down to my lap.  Next to me, with a gentle smile crossing her face, my mother explained.  “Well, your dad and I were married in August,” she began.  “And in those days, you never wore black before Labor Day.”  Turning my head to look back down at the photo of smiling newlyweds, I tried to wrap my teenage brain around what felt like such an odd statement.  “Why?” I wondered aloud.  Mom answered with a slight shrug, “Those were just the rules we followed.”

As writers and teachers of writing, we know there are many rules we must all follow.  Beginning in the earliest years of schooling (and, let’s face it, continuing into middle school), young writers are taught to begin a sentence with a capital letter and punctuate the end with either a period, question mark, or exclamation point.  We teach them some of the various uses of a comma, how subjects and verbs work, and ways dialogue should look on a page.  As they grow older, we begin to teach different structures, as well as different strategies for elaborating inside of those structures.  And at some point, somewhere around middle school, we lay down the law and begin delivering (and enforcing) the edict: “Thou shalt not use the pronoun ‘I’.”

As a high school student, I certainly remember this rule being practically drilled into my writerly consciousness.  Any occasion in which I may have slipped and accidentally hit the shift key along with the letter I on my typewriter was later met with the dreaded red pen.  It was as if Labor Day had ended and that slovenly pronoun had arrived at the wedding wearing a white tuxedo.  So wrong!

But let’s reconsider that edict for a brief moment.  What about professional writers?  In 2018, do they still follow this rule?  On a flight between the west and east coasts recently, I leaned forward and pulled a copy of Southwest: The Magazine from the seat pocket in front of me.  The cover of the magazine had attracted my attention, as it featured an article about the resurgence of pinball (one of my favorite pastimes as a teenager). Immediately hooked by the topic, I opened to the article.  It begins this way (2018):

Sometimes at night, after everyone else in my family had gone to sleep, I would lie in bed and pretend I was a pinball machine. I would press the knobs of my hip bones as if they controlled the flippers and kick my legs as if they were bumpers and imagine the silver ball careening through spinners and up ramps and into the drop targets of my favorite machines, the layouts of which I had memorized. Inevitably, I played brilliantly enough to light up the cherry-red circle marked “special,” at which point I would fire the ball into the illuminated kick-out hole (otherwise known as my belly button) to win a free game, an event commemorated by a muffled but distinct crack, the sound of which, even 40 years later, is enough to set my heart aflutter. I thrashed around, playing this imaginary game, until I fell asleep. I would then dream of pinball (p. 55).

Enthralled by the energetic writing, I continued reading. In this text, I learned about some of the more technical aspects of pinball, as well as some of the current venues where one might compete in tourneys. I learned about techniques for successful play, and what some of the most monetarily valuable machines are called.  Captivated by the impassioned, engaging voice of the writing, I voraciously read on and on (it’s a long article).  And somewhere in the middle,  I concluded that this article must have been written by some slouch who doesn’t understand the ‘I-rule.”  I mean, he or she must have either not graduated from high school or is maybe just some airlines magazine writer.  So I flipped to the end of the article to find out who wrote it, only to discover this writer, Steve Almond, has published ten books and has spent time on the New York Times Bestseller list.  Hmm. . .

Every year in school, the vast majority of kids are told not to use ‘I’ in academic writing because, well, because it’s “the rule.”  But in longitudinal studies completed by organizations like Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the result is the eventual dulling of student writerly voice.  Driving home this point at a recent Teachers College Saturday Reunion workshop, Dr. Mary Ehrenworth showed examples of students whose writing, while becoming more “evidence-based” across revisions, lost a lot of voice in the process.

A quick Google search for the terms “voice in writing” yielded the following result:  “an author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character” (Google, 2018).  Take a moment to reread this definition; which parts would we not want foster in our students?  All of us would likely agree- they all matter.

So why consider lightening up on the hard and fast “I-rule” in school writing? Here are a few reasons:

  • Knowledge of topic:  Let’s face it, authors who appear to know their topic are more engaging and more interesting.  We trust them. And we allow them to impact us more than someone who clearly does NOT seem to know.  By harnessing pronouns that reflect this knowledge, these writers pull us in as readers and make us want to hear what they have to say and learn what they have to teach.  Consider writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan– award-winning writers who do not shy away from the first person.  Consider Steve Almond (above)!
  • Impassioned tone:  Tone matters in writing. Some might argue that by allowing students to use personal pronouns we promote a heretical compromise to academic tone.  In some academic communities, this perception may hold merit.  But consider that professional authors everywhere understand that in order to learn, readers must be engaged; and in order to be engaged, readers must be interested; and in order to be interested, readers must sense that the writer cares, When writerly tone is impassioned with a personal touch, the writer’s caring is allowed to seep through.  Consider Almond’s article as a case-in-point; his first person perspective made me feel like I was listening to both an expert and also someone who cares about the topic.  Which, I would posit, helps readers care, too.
  • Enhanced credibility: First person must be used artfully; but when done well, credibility can be enhanced. Consider the following excerpt from Steve Almond’s pinball article entitled, “Staying Alive.” In this part, he’s teaching the basics of pinball to readers who may not know them. Watch as he switches out of a mundane teaching tone to first-person enhancement:

Skilled players can win free games, or extra balls, by earning enough points or by completing a complex set of tasks.

The machines themselves, especially the vintage models I played as a kid, are gorgeous, with a scoreboard, or back glass, that rises above the playing field like an illuminated mini-billboard (p. 57).

Do you hear how the information springs to life in the second half?

As I hope to suggest here, the use of first person is an art perhaps more than it is a science (kind of like the use of fragments). Overuse of first person comes with definite risks.  So as teachers, we would likely benefit from studying some great mentor texts from publications like Mary Ehrenworth showed, publications like The New Yorker or the New York Times or others. During Mary’s session, those of us in attendance briefly studied just a few pieces, some more informative in nature, some more persuasive, that all contained first person usage.  Analyzing alongside our students ways professional writers use the first person to support their purpose, and providing some guidance about how and when to use (and when not to use) first person seems like a powerful idea.  After all, it was Donald Graves who suggested we begin teaching young writers the ways professional writers write.

Wearing white before Labor Day is perhaps a rule still observed by some in our culture.  But like many other cultural norms, it no longer holds the power to inspire rigid adherence that it once did in my parents’ day.  Maybe it is time to consider a similar mindset when we teach students how to write without the first person?

What are your thoughts about easing up on the “I-rule?”  I’d love to hear from you!

Note: For a more academic discussion on this topic, see Jenna Sheffield’s article in Writing Commons here.