Course 1: Lesson 3

Avoid Personal References

          We have all written the equivalent of the cliché, "Having a wonderful time; wish you were here." That is a very nice note to send a friend. A nice personal touch goes a long way toward relationship building. However, does the same approach work when asked by an employer to write a synopsis of new medical benefits for fellow employees? Does this approach work when asked by a teacher to write a lengthy term paper on the Roman Empire? Most often, the personal touch fails for a variety of reasons. Learn this lesson well:

          Unless you are addressing someone directly or informally, avoid personal references in your writing.


          Let us begin with the common pronoun, "you." I have read college research assignments where this popular personal reference has been used literally hundreds of times in a ten-page paper. Research papers are just that – research papers. In such assignments, it is inappropriate to address the instructor on a personal level as though one were writing a letter to a friend.

          Suppose, for example, an assignment calls for researching the relationship between the tourist trade and a 3% rise in the Brazilian economy. Writers do not generally have the statistical and factual data available to them at their fingertips. Research is required to discover whether a relationship exists, and why or why not. Dedicated writers generally expend the required hours researching the subject. Then, for some reason, they typically find the need to begin their written assignments as though they were on vacation writing to a friend.

          For example, they might write:

          When you go to Brazil, you find many tourists in Rio de Janeiro.

          When I go to Brazil? I am the person reading the paper. I do not go to Brazil. Where did the writer get the idea I go there? Invariably, when I question a student’s use of the personal reference, the reply is something like, “Oh, I didn’t mean you.” You didn’t? Whom did you mean? To whom does the word refer? The personal reference watered down the impact of the research compiled by the otherwise serious writer.

          Here is another example.

          When you go to Italy, you always overeat.

          Me? It is simply not true. I have been to Italy dozens of times, but I did not overeat. When I confronted a student who used this exact example in a paper, she replied, “I wasn’t referring to you. I was talking about people in general.” She was? She did not say, “When one goes to Italy” or “When people go to Italy.” She said, “When you go to Italy.” Learn this lesson well:

          It is not the responsibility of the reader to figure out what the writer means. It is the responsibility of the writer to convey the exact meaning to the reader.

          In addition to overuse of the personal reference you, many writers make the classic error of writing almost everything in terms of themselves, especially in the academic world.

          For example, a student might write:

          I feel the Renaissance was a time of great change. I believe it was a time when people emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages. I think it was the most productive artistic period in three thousand years. As far as I am concerned, the Renaissance is responsible for many attitudes in modern-day America.

          A person who thinks, believes, or feels the information supplied to the reader is accurate has not done the research. Students must reveal the results of their research, not what they would like the research to reveal. I have had many students tell me they cannot write a sentence without the needless self-reference. As such, they write poorly.

          Consider this sentence in a letter to your supervisor at the bank where you work:

          I believe that people pay little attention to the amount of credit card interest they pay each year.

          Do they? Do people pay little attention or does this writer believe people pay little attention? Unless writers are simply giving off-the-cuff informal opinions, they must present arguments, research findings, book interpretations, and other information to back up what they say. They are expected, for example, to explain how Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a profound impact on the Civil War era. They are not expected to write papers on what they feel the era was like or on the impact they think the classic novel had on the population of that age.

          In either the business or academic world, it is usually not the writer’s job to relate to others what he believes to be true. The idea is to reveal what he or she has learned from studying, reading, researching, and critical thinking. Needless self-references detract from that revelation.

          The same principle holds true, even if a writer is just blogging online. Rambling thoughts delivered to friends are perfectly acceptable. One would have to be extremely analytical to suggest otherwise. However, when writing a blog post explaining an historical event to readers, a writer should avoid personal references. The purpose of the post is to relate information, not explain to readers that you think Alexander-the-Great conquered the known world. Either he did, or he did not. How you view the man might be relevant to your personal feelings, but it is irrelevant to the history of his conquests. Do you see the difference?

          Let’s discuss this concept further.

          Adults returning to school come with various talents. Many have a great deal of business experience. Many have never had the opportunity to advance their professional careers. Despite adult experiences, many doubt their academic skills because years earlier they had performed poorly in high school.


          As I previously stated, in a typical situation, an adult will return to school believing he or she has acquired the requisite skills over time when it is simply untrue, or will hesitate to return to school for fear those skills are wanting. Either way, the adult student is at a disadvantage without the realization that certain writing rules are essential if one is to attain good grades in an academic setting or satisfactory results from writing in the professional world. It is impractical to suggest that older students and adults return to seventh or eighth grade English classes to learn those technical rules. Such an impractical plan is unnecessary, if they apply a few basic principles to their writing.

          Now, let’s take a look at an original paragraph written by a student, and its revision:

          Original – I believe Winston Churchill pleaded with President Roosevelt to enter the conflict.   You can see how important it was to the British people. When you fight a war without allies, you have considerably more to lose. I can’t imagine that Great Britain would have prevailed without American aid.

          Revision – Winston Churchill pleaded with President Roosevelt to enter the conflict.

America’s support was important to the British people. If the British fought the war without allies, their losses would have been far worse. Great Britain probably would not have prevailed without American aid.

          The differences between the two paragraphs above are vast. The first is very poorly written. The second is far more polished. If you understand the concept presented in this chapter, you are on your way to cleaning up your writing forever.

          Although you might not know all the technical rules of writing, I assure you that the elimination of personal references greatly improves the quality of your writing. It cleans up the writing without reliance on memorizing numerous technical grammar rules.

          And, yes, I know I am writing to you, informally. That was my intention. I am writing to you as a friend!

          For practice, examine the following sentences. They are all poorly written due to personal references:

          1. You never know how hard you’ve been working until you take a vacation.

          2. I feel Shakespeare was a good writer.

          3. I think Einstein’s theory of relativity was incorrect.

          Remember, you are being called upon to deliver a written message on a given topic to an academic institution or a business concern, or to deliver a written communication about some topic to people in the community. You are not being asked to discuss yourself, your feelings, your idle conjectures, your employer, or your instructor. Serious writers understand this one simple principle.

          Get the Message?

          Unless you are addressing someone directly or informally, avoid personal references in your writing.