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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.

Lanny Ball View All

For more than 25 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.

18 thoughts on “Rethinking the “I-Rule” Leave a comment

  1. “I” was working with two other teachers on a fourth grade writing prject. Kids were essentially writing reports on civil rights leaders and issues surrounding various movements. I taught a lesson where in the conclusion paragraph, I encouraged them to ask questions, make connections to the present and “challenge the reader to think.”The two other teachers were taking the I’s out left and right. They were polite about my opinion, but sticking to their thought that this genre did not have room for the personal.
    Connecting the reader at that point to the witer by the insertion of editorializing by the simple use of I seems a highly effective way for young writers to develop voice, because they are crafting their own thoughts.
    I like the use of I where it provides meaning and depth. So do my writers. They get a sense that their contribution is important and they make a connection to their work.

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  2. I teach 7th grade Language Arts and I let my students use “I” when they are engaged in argumentative writing. Other teachers have argued with me that it makes the writing less “formal”. However, I pulled up numerous Opinion pieces from the New York Times in which the authors used “I” throughout. If it’s ok for them, then it’s ok for my students.

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  3. I really enjoyed this post. I don’t remember being told I couldn’t use “I”, but I vividly remember being told I couldn’t use “and” to start a sentence. I was very surprised when I started reading everything I could get my hands on (late high school) and so many authors started sentences with “and”. It took me a long time to NOT notice that they were breaking the rules. Now I think it’s fun to point out when authors we are reading in our classroom are breaking the rules.

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  4. I remember feeling constrained by the “I Rule” in high school. It wasn’t until I took some advanced courses in college that I learned there IS a place for “I” in academic writing. Fortunately, as someone who has spent her teaching life working with elementary school students or grad students (who are learning about the teaching of writing), I have never had to enforce the “I Rule” in any way.

    I like the approach you shared from Mary Ehrenworth. Do you have the links to some of the articles she used as mentor texts?

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  5. Having learned to avoid “I” in formal writing and having taught this rule–depending on the writing assigned–I understand the reasons for following and breaking the rule. First, the professional writing you cite isn’t academic writing that must meat the standards of a given discipline. “Southwest” magazine, for example, targets the general public, and the pinball example is a personal narrative. As such, of course it will use “I.” Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell writes for public consumption, not an academic audience, so he uses a more informal, personal style. Second, when students in high school learn to avoid “I” it’s at least in part to teach them conciseness. That is, they say things like “I think,” or “In my opinion.” Yes, it’s more personal, but it’s also redundant and boring. Merely using “I” does not by virtue result in either voice or an engaging essay. What’s important to remember is audience and purpose.

    Similar to Janet’s experience, I took an informal approach to parts of my MA thesis, and I teach students to speak to their audience using an inclusive voice in their speeches, but in AP Lit and Comp I want students to eschew “I” in their essays because the College Board expects a more formal approach. Similarly, technical writing can’t have the writer present in the text. It must be dry and detached. We may not enjoy that writing style, but it serves a purpose in some disciplines.

    A couple months ago I read an article about overuse of “I” in writing. The gist is that a constant focus on the “I” in speech and in writing demonstrates a self-absorption and insecurity on the part of the writer. In the final analysis, teaching that focuses on where a student is now in his/her learning journey and where that student will travel as s/he continues the journey matters. This must be my focus in preparing students for the various contingencies they’ll face in their college studies, and it should be the focus for middle school teachers, too.

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    • The ” a self-absorption and insecurity on the part of the writer” really speaks to me. If you read the local alternative press it is full of writers of a certain generation whose overuse of the personal pronoun takes important news and turns every piece into editorials, though important, lower them to the status of rants.
      I think our young writers need to learn how to use the power of I by reserving it as a coup de gras in an argument after building a solid case. Just maybe not in their college essays. 🙂

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  6. Just a quick comment having only had a minute to scan this wonderful post. I was working on my dissertation back in the mid-1980s. The professor made a point of saying that that writing should be interesting and captivating. He said to forget the rules, go for engagement. I was shocked and thrilled. I also have an article and will later try to find the reference about breaking the rules and the evidence that authors don’t follow the rules. Vitality, creativity, voice. I explained all this to my students and said (and this was in the late 80s and 90s) that as long as they could show that what they were writing “fit” the context and was not an error, I would allow them to tweak the standard expectations for a higher purpose. We truly need to assess where we are headed. Get published articles, read those. I could go on. The pendulum keeps swinging thankfully.

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    • “Vitality, creativity, voice.” Yes! I agree that taking stock of where we are headed with writing instruction is warranted. Some old-fashioned rules will never go away, nor should they. But I believe incumbent on us as teachers is to be a reader and notice how professional writing is evolving. Thank you for your comment!

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  7. I love it when we find ways to teach into “rule breaking.” Didn’t we, as kids, question rules all the time and wonder, “Why?” This should continue and as teachers, we really should always be asking ourselves, “Is this a rule or is it just what’s always been done? And if it’s a rule, why?” I love that you shared this today because it further pushes teachers and writers to think about their purpose. Thanks, Lanny.

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    • Thanks, Betsy! In my opinion, sometimes purpose- especially in the secondary grades- can sometimes be too focused on compliance and not on real WRITERLY purpose. Real writers always have a purpose, always consider their audience…and therefore, they should always be thinking about and addressing issues around how to engage that audience. Thank you for your thoughts!

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  8. One of the most frustrating things is to see how writing is taught using prescribed rules and methods. This method does impinge on student voice. My high school aged son’s are forced to write so their ideas, words, phrases, and paragraphs all fit a format. Where is the creativity in that? Instructing students not to use “I” or first person is just the beginning of what gets prescribed later on. Some of the prescription is necessary, some is not. As with all prescriptions, there are side effects – the lost of voice is one of them. I enjoyed your piece; you gave us much food for thought. Thanks!

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  9. We were struggling when teaching information writing in third grade to coach into no “I”. Students were adding amazing micro stories much like Mr. Arnold and they just need to be first person. Much like winter white, I’ll allow the “I”. I’ll keep an eye out for opinion sneaking into information writing. Perhaps that’s ok too.

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    • Allowing students to use micro-stories that bring information to life is something many professional writers do, as I try to point out in this post. Teaching third graders how to share first person knowledge of a topic via a purposeful anecdote or micro story seems, then, quite appropriate! Thanks for your comment 🙂

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