Essay Writing: First-Person and Third-Person Points of View

Introduction

People approach essay writing in so many different ways. Some spend a long time worrying about how to set about writing an informative piece, which will educate, or even entertain, the readers. But it is not just the content that's the issue; it is also the way the content is - or ought to be - written. More may have asked the question: what should I use, the first-person point of view (POV) or the third-person?

Choosing between the two has confused more than a few essay-writing people. Sure, it can be easy to fill the piece up with healthy chunks of information and content, but it takes a deeper understanding of both points of view to be able to avoid slipping in and out one or the other - or at least realize it when it happens. Sure, a Jekyll and Hyde way of writing may be clever, but it can be very confusing in non-fiction forms, like the essay.

Why is all this important?

Continually swapping from the first-person to the third-person POV may leave the reader confused. Who exactly is talking here? Why does one part of the essay sound so detached and unaffected, while the next suddenly appears to be intimate and personal?

Indeed, making the mistake of using both points of view - without realizing it - leaves readers with the impression of the essay being haphazardly written.

Using first-person: advantages and disadvantages

The use of the first-person narration in an essay means that the author is writing exclusively from his or her point of view - no one else's. The story or the information will thus be told from the perspective of "I," and "We," with words like "me," "us," "my," "mine," "our," and "ours" often found throughout the essay.

Example: "I first heard about this coastal island two years ago, when the newspapers reported the worst oil spill in recent history. To me, the story had the impact of a footnote - evidence of my urban snobbishness. Luckily, the mess of that has since been cleaned up; its last ugly ripple has ebbed."

You will see from the above example that the writer, while not exactly talking about himself or herself, uses the first-person point of view to share information about a certain coastal island, and a certain oil spill. The decision to do so enables the essay to have a more personal, subjective, and even intimate tone of voice; it also allows the author to refer to events, experiences, and people while giving (or withholding) information as he or she pleases.

The first-person view also provides an opportunity to convey the viewpoint character or author's personal thoughts, emotions, opinion, feelings, judgments, understandings, and other internal information (or information that only the author possesses) - as in "the story had the impact of a footnote". This then allows readers to be part of the narrator's world and identify with the viewpoint character.

This is why the first-person point of view is a natural choice for memoirs, autobiographical pieces, personal experience essays, and other forms of non-fiction in which the author serves also as a character in the story.

The first-person POV does have certain limitations. First and most obvious is the fact that the author is limited to a single point of view, which can be narrow, restrictive, and awkward. Less careful or inexperienced writers using first-person may also fall to the temptation of making themselves the focal subject - even the sole subject - of the essay, even in cases that demand focus and information on other subjects, characters, or events.

Using third-person: advantages and disadvantages

The third-person point of view, meanwhile, is another flexible narrative device used in essays and other forms of non-fiction wherein the author is not a character within the story, serving only as an unspecified, uninvolved, and unnamed narrator conveying information throughout the essay. In third-person writing, people and characters are referred to as "he," "she," "it," and "they"; "I" and "we" are never used (unless, of course, in a direct quote).

Example: "Local residents of the coastal island province suffered an ecological disaster in 2006, in the form of an oil spill that was reported by national newspapers to be worst in the country's history. Cleaning up took two years, after which they were finally able to go back to advertising their island's beach sands as 'pure' and its soil, 'fertile.'"

Obviously, the use of the third-person point of view here makes the essay sound more factual - and not just a personal collection of the author's own ideas, opinions, and thoughts. It also lends the piece a more professional and less casual tone. Moreover, writing in third-person can help establish the greatest possible distance between reader and author - and the kind of distance necessary to present the essay's rhetorical situations.

The essay being non-fiction, it is important to keep in mind that the primary purpose of the form is to convey information about a particular subject to the reader. The reader has the right to believe that the essay is factually correct, or is at least given context by factual events, people, and places.

The third-person point of view is more common in reports, research papers, critiques, biography, history, and traditional journalistic essays. This again relates to the fact that the author can, with the third-person POV, create a formal distance, a kind of objectivity, appropriate in putting up arguments or presenting a case.

Additional Writing Resources