Which perspective: I, you, or we? Why?

First time writer, long time listener. Please be gentle.


How do you write?

  • Do you use the first person singular “I”?
  • Do you talk to yourself (or anyone else who listens) using the second person “you”
  • Or are you majestic enough to use the royal “we”?

Why do you chose a point-of-view instead of another?

I’ve battled this for years and I’ve never been able to settle this dispute. I was hoping to solve this once and for all by reading Andy’s working notes, but he makes a soup of all three. @nickmilo also.

Begin by answering the question, “To whom are you writing?” (Notice I didn’t just write “I think the answer is…,” because the context makes it clear I am speaking to you.) In the parenthetical sentence “you” and “I” were necessary to identify who was speaking and to whom.

I try to not worry much about stylistic preferences when writing in my journal unless I know I’m writing in hopes of a particular audience reading the content in the future. In some cases that future audience is me, so I’ll use the word “you” unless I’m trying to convey a present state, like “I’m feeling optimistic about completing _______ today.” In some cases I am making a statement that I hope my grandchildren will someday read, so I use “you” or “we” as a general pronoun.

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That’s a good question and one I struggle with as well. Most of what I write is for my own future consumption (and a lot of that writing is intended to aid my memory and frankly there’s a good chance I won’t need to read a particular note again). Capturing my thoughts is often my attempt to stop the incessant internal dialog so I can move on with getting things done. “Calming the monkey brain” as I’ve heard Tim Ferris describe it.

Since I use Obsidian heavily at work, most of my get-stuff-done writing tends to be lacking a particular point of view - it’s factual, project/time-based.

Two totally different intentions. The first is me thinking about my work, the second is me doing the work.

Part of the beauty of Obsidian is that it encourages linking - so I often end up with monkey-brain interlinked with my fact-based business writing. That’s great, however I tend to have a little hit of anxiety when I share my Obsidian vault in a Zoom session at work - I don’t really want the monkey-brain chatter visible to one and all :slight_smile:

(sidebar r.e. the royal ‘we’: I have programmed Siri to refer to me as “Great and Benevolent Master” :crown: )

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I like this question! I have also wondered about POV for notes, and this is what I’ve settled on for now:

If I’m writing to understand some set of facts or ideas, I’ll use third person because I am an academic, and that writing may end up in a paper later on. Even if it doesn’t, I prefer the practice of writing more formally when it comes to science because that is ultimately how I will have to communicate most ideas I have or understand. Given that good, active third-person is hard to write, I like to get as much practice as possible.

I will sometimes use “we”, but only when I am writing about cross-cultural human behavior. I’m a social scientist, so I write about human behavior all the time, but it feels weird to refer to humans as “they” since I am, as far as I know, also human.

If, however, I am writing about productivity or personal philosophy or something that is directly applicable to my life, I have the tendency to write in second person but actually try to write in first person. For instance, on first pass, I might write something like, “You should explain the purpose of each source that you read.” However, the psychology of writing it and even re-reading it later makes it feel like it is advice to someone else because it always feels like I’M the one saying it, which means I’m “talking” to someone else. It never feels like past me talking to present me.

So, I will re-write such as statement as, “(I should) Explain the purpose of each source I read.” Now it sounds like me thinking about what I should do, not what someone else should do. It feels more personal, more like it is about me. I don’t always put in the effort to re-write “you” statements as “I” statements; sometimes I am fine with “you” statements for general advice that I haven’t decided to personally adopt. But once I want to put it into action, I suspect “I” statements have more sticking power.

Just my 2 cents…

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On the Internet, everyone knows you’re a cat.

What makes you say that?


Thanks for all the feedback.

Excellent question, thanks.

I’ve been exercising today with “you”. At first it felt pretentious. But then again, it is less pretentious than the royal we (aka YouTuber we?). It is less isolated than “I”.

“You” is a bit preachy. But I comfort myself saying that the preacher and “preachee” are the same person: me.

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I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about this. My notes are usually for me, but sometimes they start life as something I’ve written up for someone else’s consumption.

Either way, I tend to leave myself and any reader out of the phrasing. It’s almost always possible:

Take step one, then step two. What about an approach that did x, y and z? Write a script that accomplishes the goal.

I suppose the first or second person is implied in some of that, but not explicit.

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Just personal experience. Since academic science writing still frowns upon first person, third-person is king there. But when writing in third person, people (myself included) seem to default to writing in passive voice. I’m not sure why. Maybe because a good subject of a sentence isn’t obvious (or, the logical subject of the sentence is YOU, the AUTHOR, but we’re supposed to write as if science happens omnisciently and is not conducted by humans [or cats…]…). At least in my schooling, teachers and professors have spent a lot of time breaking us of the habit of (third person) passive voice, which makes me think it is a common struggle.

I also think writing in third person can be harder than first or second person simply because I suspect we get less practice with third person in conversation. But I’d need to consult a linguist to know whether that intuition is well-founded.

But I think, ultimately, @danlandrum hit it dead-on. It depends on who you’re writing to. In my case, I’m writing to myself, but since my livelihood depends on writing to other people following certain conventions, I try to make my most of my writing to myself follow those conventions as a form of practice. If I did something else, I might do something different.

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My conceptual notes are for my own use. I tend to use first person perspective, and treat it as a ‘flag’ when I see myself writing in second person: why am I putting distance between myself and the text, what is it I’m not sure enough about to claim as my own insight / opinion?

As key public output I make based on notes is in the form of blogposts and presentations, that first person perspective is ok. If it’s used for other outputs (reports etc) then I need to rewrite things anyway, and switching perspective is then part of that.

Call it my brain; inner voice; subconscious; Steve; but it rather depends on whether it is a comment independent of Steve, such as “I like ice cream”; a comment from Steve to me, such as “quit putting off this errand, you lazy turd”; or a comment that requires collaboration between Steve and I, such as “we need to think this over”.