Me, Myself, and I

Leave it to my alumni magazine (The University of Texas at Austin) to offer an insightful look into a major pet peeve of professional writers: Over-use of the word “I.”

In years of editing thousands of works of film criticism, this has been perhaps my biggest pet peeve. (And yes, I’m aware that I’m breaking that rule repeatedly in this post.) Junior critics often can’t find any other way to get a handle on a movie review, so they start by talking about, well, themselves. “I was on my way to the theater when…” “I’ve been excited to see this movie forever…” “I love Cameron Diaz…”

It’s sloppy writing, and it’s completely unengaging. Readers don’t care about you. They care about the movie. Or the laptop you’re reviewing. Or whatever else you’re writing about. But the last thing they want to hear about is what you had for lunch.

Now, linguists have shown that use of the word “I” in academic writing is correlated to students’ grades. In other words, the less you talk about yourself, the smarter you are.

Unfortunately, you can’t read the essay unless you’re a UT alumnus, but I’ve got the highlights for you below. (You can, however, buy the book from which it was excerpted, The Secret Life of Pronouns.)

Could the function words students use in their admissions essays predict their college grades? This was an appealing question for both David and me and, as it turned out, for Gary as well. To be clear, this was not a strategy to invent a new way to evaluate college essays to determine who should be admitted. Rather, we first wanted to learn if word use was related to academic performance and, if it was, whether we could influence the students to become better writers and thinkers in college.

We eventually analyzed over 50,000 essays from 25,000 students who had enrolled over a 4-year period. The results were straightforward. Word use was indeed related to students’ grades over all four years of college. The word categories most strongly related to making good grades were:

  • High rates of articles and concrete nouns
  • High rates of big words
  • Low rates of auxiliary and other verbs (especially present tense)
  • Low rates of personal and impersonal pronouns

These constellation of words should look familiar to you. You might recall from earlier chapters that people differ in the degree that they are categorical versus dynamic thinkers. A categorical thinker is someone who tends to focus on objects, things, and categories. The opposite end of this dimension are people who are more dynamic in their thinking. When thinking dynamically, people are describing action and changes. Often, dynamic thinkers devote much of their thinking to other people (which explains their high use of pronouns).

Great food for thought, and something to think about next time you try to start a blog post or article with “I.”