Personal Experience Academic Essay

Although you didn't quite ask it this way, I see two parts to your question, and I will offer answers accordingly: "Is it okay to discuss personal experiences or observations in academic writing?" and "Is there any difference when it comes to literature reviews?"

Is it okay to discuss personal experiences or observations in academic writing?

Although it is controversial (some people will tell you never to include personal experiences), I think there is a place for personal experiences. But first, you need to understand why this is generally frowned on.

Everyone has personal experiences and everyone has different ways to interpret them. Anyone can write a magazine or blog article sharing their personal experiences. That's just their opinion, which the reader could take as good or bad. What separates an academic article from such opinions is that academic writing is usually expected to be fairly objective (tries to take a disinterested third-party perspective) and critical (takes nothing at face value, but tries to dig under the surface to understand what is really going on from multiple non-obvious perspectives). (One notable exception to this is critical social theory, which does not necessarily try to be objective, but nonetheless strongly emphasizes being critical.)

So, where do personal experiences fit in here? Most of the time, they are not objective (by definition) and all too often, they are insufficiently critical. This is why they are often frowned on. However, I believe they could be helpful and acceptable if the writer considers their own personal experiences this way: "What makes my personal experience more outstanding than other random personal experiences related to this phenomenon?" If there is nothing particularly outstanding about it (e.g. it merely serves to illustrate the point, as do other people's experiences), then it is best not to mention it, since such a mention would weaken an otherwise strong academic argument. But if it is unique or original (e.g., the entire study is propelled by the fact that the writer's personal experiences contradict the dominant scholarly discourse), then it is definitely worth mentioning. However, in such cases, the writer should try to describe their experience as objectively as possible and should be critical in not accepting their own interpretations of their experience at face value. When presented properly, such personal experiences can strengthen the credibility of the writer.

Is there any difference when it comes to literature reviews?

I believe the principle I laid out for academic writing in general also applies to literature reviews. However, there are two levels or two aspects to a literature review that you need to distinguish in this case:

  • Including your personal experiences as part of the "literature" being reviewed: NO. Your personal experiences are not "literature". "Literature" means published works (by "published" I include grey literature such as working papers; I also include non-scholarly practitioner publications). It does not include unpublished, unwritten anecdotes. That is at best to be considered primary research, which is never part of "literature" being reviewed in a literature review. (Don't misunderstand me; you are certainly free to supplement a literature review with original primary research if you want to, but you just have to clearly distinguish that from the "review" part of the article or chapter.)

  • Including your personal experiences as part of the introduction or discussion of your literature review: In this case, since you are clearly not presenting your own experiences as part of the "literature" being reviewed, then my comments above apply. I see no problem with this if it is done properly. But again, this is controversial; "controversial" means that your supervisor or journal editor might disagree, and so you might have to drop it regardless.

Many times, high school students are told not to use first person (“I,” “we,” “my,” “us,” and so forth) in their essays. As a college student, you should realize that this is a rule that can and should be broken—at the right time, of course.

By now, you’ve probably written a personal essay, memoir, or narrative that used first person. After all, how could you write a personal essay about yourself, for instance, without using the dreaded “I” word?

However, academic essays differ from personal essays; they are typically researched and use a formal tone. Because of these differences, when students write an academic essay, they quickly shy away from first person because of what they have been told in high school or because they believe that first person feels too informal for an intellectual, researched text. Yet while first person can definitely be overused in academic essays (which is likely why your teachers tell you not to use it), there are moments in a paper when it is not only appropriate, but it is actually effective and/or persuasive to use first person. The following are a few instances in which it is appropriate to use first person in an academic essay:

  • Including a personal anecdote: You have more than likely been told that you need a strong “hook” to draw your readers in during an introduction. Sometimes, the best hook is a personal anecdote, or a short amusing story about yourself. In this situation, it would seem unnatural not to use first-person pronouns such as “I” and “myself.” Your readers will appreciate the personal touch and will want to keep reading! (For more information about incorporating personal anecdotes into your writing, see "Employing Narrative in an Essay.")

  • Establishing your credibility (ethos): Ethos is a term stemming back to Ancient Greece that essentially means “character” in the sense of trustworthiness or credibility. A writer can establish her ethos by convincing the reader that she is trustworthy source. Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to get personal—tell the reader a little bit about yourself. (For more information about ethos, see "Ethos.")

    For instance, let’s say you are writing an essay arguing that dance is a sport. Using the occasional personal pronoun to let your audience know that you, in fact, are a classically trained dancer—and have the muscles and scars to prove it—goes a long way in establishing your credibility and proving your argument. And this use of first person will not distract or annoy your readers because it is purposeful.

  • Clarifying passive constructions: Often, when writers try to avoid using first person in essays, they end up creating confusing, passive sentences.

    For instance, let’s say I am writing an essay about different word processing technologies, and I want to make the point that I am using Microsoft Word to write this essay. If I tried to avoid first-person pronouns, my sentence might read: “Right now, this essay is being written in Microsoft Word.” While this sentence is not wrong, it is what we call passive—the subject of the sentence is being acted upon because there is no one performing the action. To most people, this sentence sounds better: “Right now, I am writing this essay in Microsoft Word.” Do you see the difference? In this case, using first person makes your writing clearer.

  • Stating your position in relation to others: Sometimes, especially in an argumentative essay, it is necessary to state your opinion on the topic. Readers want to know where you stand, and it is sometimes helpful to assert yourself by putting your own opinions into the essay. You can imagine the passive sentences (see above) that might occur if you try to state your argument without using the word “I.” The key here is to use first person sparingly. Use personal pronouns enough to get your point across clearly without inundating your readers with this language.

Now, the above list is certainly not exhaustive. The best thing to do is to use your good judgment, and you can always check with your instructor if you are unsure of his or her perspective on the issue. Ultimately, if you feel that using first person has a purpose or will have a strategic effect on your audience, then it is probably fine to use first-person pronouns. Just be sure not to overuse this language, at the risk of sounding narcissistic, self-centered, or unaware of others’ opinions on a topic.

See also:

The First Person

Use the First Person

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