Your Essay is Your Marionette; Let it “Think” and “Research” for You

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Advice #3: Your Essay is Your Marionette.

Putting two pieces of advice in a post seems a little bit “dense” for some, so I find it better to go back to “one post, one suggestion”.

I finished last week with two tasks for writing objectives and definitions. The first task is relevant to this post: what should I put in the Subject to denote the “do-er” of research activities (expressed in verbs)?

Many examples from expert texts tell us that it is okay to use “I” (or “we”) in academic writing. As a descriptivist myself, I have no problem with personal pronouns at all. It means when you use “I” and “we” with research verbs (e.g. analyse, examine, investigate, etc.), it is perfectly fine — it represents your line of reasoning.

It’s only “strange” to use the personal pronouns with “emotive” verbs: “I think”, “I believe”, “I agree” and so on. These combinations do not align with the less personal academic “style” that places emphasis on topic knowledge instead.

So in general, for consistency, once you make up your mind to remain a distance from a personal writing style, simply replace all “I”s and “we”s with “this paper”. For example, to state the aim of your essay, you can say:

This paper examines how Chinese culture is the major risk factor of intimate partner violence…

This has an interesting effect of “personifying” your essay as if it can do the research for you (of course it’s actually you who undertake the study). It applies to all research verbs (This essay analyses/ investigates/ argues/ proves…).

But it still sounds weird if you use it with “think” or “believe” (Graham Low wrote a chapter in 1999 to illustrate a method to collect teachers’ view on how [un]acceptable it was for expressions such as “this paper thinks/believes” to be in academic writing).

There are indeed more ways to remove the personal from an essay, but for filling the Subject position when the research verb is in place, you can consider using your essay as your marionette — let it do work for you.

Keep writing!

Low, G. D. (1999) ‘“This Paper Thinks … ”. Investigating the Metaphor an Essay is a Person’. In L. Cameron and G. D. Low (Eds.), Researching and Applying Metaphor (pp. 221-248). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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