It was written. I write. She wrote.

In April 2014 on April 10, 2014 at 8:44 am


Sarah: Classically-trained scientists communicate in a very particular way. When writing articles for professional publications they are taught to always remove any sense of ‘personhood’ from their descriptions of how experiments are conducted, and the passive tense is usually applied.

Hence, rather than write,

I used a microscope to count the skin cells.

The perfect scientist would say,

Skin cells were counted using a microscope.

It’s indirect, apparently no actual person was involved, and in long sentences it can get messy. But – for historical reasons – it’s just the way things are done in science. It’s rather fitting I guess, given that science is supposed to be removed from any subjective influence.

It’s because of this requirement for a very specific and removed style of language that many scientists find it hard work to communicate through platforms other than their specialist journals. For example, creating enticing and punchy articles for blogs and newspapers can be nigh on impossible without the use of personal pronouns – I, we, she, he, they – and the active forms of verbs. This is something I’ve had to think about quite a bit in writing posts for this blog, as even now habit can lead me to using the passive voice on occasion.

But it turns out there are also implications according to whether one writes using the first or the third person i.e. I versus he or she. This I learnt through reading a fascinating article by Jane Turner Goldsmith: entitled The Psychology of Writing, it appeared in the March 2014 edition of Southern Write, the quarterly magazine of the SA Writers Centre.

Jane says,

“It matters who is telling the story and how it is told. We know this matters to a reader of course, but it turns out to also matter to the writer – from the point of view of mental health.”

And then,

“Writers who use the third person are also less vulnerable psychologically than their counterparts who write in the first person. It makes sense – there is more psychological vulnerability in that exposed first person voice, commonly (but not always) employed by poets, than there is in the more distanced third person point of view. Some kind of mastery over difficult or traumatic emotions is thought to result from the distancing.”

As someone who has been writing daily or weekly blog posts in the first person for the past 20 months or so, this struck a chord. Writing from the perspective of ‘I’ often feels heavily self-indulgent, and can be especially difficult when writing about very personal matters.

Perhaps it could be time to move to the third person to explore some aspects of the science in my life. Could this be my first inkling of a foray into narrative or creative writing? With science in it, of course*.

*Don’t panic, I despise science fiction

[image thanks to Jorel on flickr]




  1. oh my lordy bee…… I think you’ve just hit on one of my favourite topics in science writing! You know, in the journals I publish in, and in many of the top, high impact journals, the writing is shifting to being much more in the first person. You’re right, it matters WHO did stuff, and assigning responsibility to actions is becoming more important in science writing.
    At Monash, we’d been teaching active voice in science writing for the past 6 years… this whole passive voice thing isn’t actually the perfect scientist anymore!

  2. I think you know what to do 😉

  3. […] A few days ago, I wrote a post on the peculiarities of verb tenses and personal pronouns in writing about science. I should have […]

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