Steven Leckart has gotten tear-gassed, crawled under razor wire fences, and taken part in 81 fitness drills for a story on the U.S. Army’s basic combat training. He’s tasted the fiery Carolina Reaper for a piece about the race to grow the next hottest pepper. He’s also spent 20 minutes shivering at the bottom of a 60-degree pool while a former NASA scientist measured changes in his metabolic rate. Leckart didn’t subject himself to these torments for kicks. He did it so he could pull readers into stories where they were learning and experiencing new things right alongside him. “My first-person experience allows readers to truly get a feeling of what it’s like to do something that they’ve been curious about or that they would never do themselves,” he says.
Science supports the idea that first-person narration in stories can help pull readers in—and keep them reading. A 2016 PLOS One study, for example, found that readers tend to feel more immersed in fiction stories that use first-person pronouns, compared to those written in the third person. Being immersed in a story is also linked to mental stimulation. According to a 2011 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, readers’ primary motor cortices were more strongly activated when reading action verbs in the first person as compared to the third person.
The modern tradition of using first-person accounts in magazine features took root during the 1960s and 1970s, when journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson, leaders of a style of reporting that came to be known as the New Journalism, began emphasizing more-literary techniques. Injecting themselves into their stories was a way to bring unique perspectives to their accounts, says Martha Nichols, who teaches first-person journalism at Harvard University. “First-person narration really allows you to share something that not only conveys who you are, conveys your voice in an engaging way, but is also connected to the focus of your feature,” she says. “It’s much more effective storytelling than just bringing in a bunch of expert quotes and research.”
First-person narration can lend authority and emotional depth to stories, Nichols says. It can also help set scenes, build tension, demystify science, and breathe life into arcane subjects. In other instances, reporters may use first person to reveal their biases, to lighten the tone of a serious explainer, or to simply avoid awkward phrasing.
First Person Is a Powerful and Flexible Tool
First-person narration can serve different functions depending on the context, says Ankita Rao, a special-projects editor at Vice. In news stories, columns, and blog posts, journalists may decide to infuse first-person anecdotes if the writer’s experience helps illustrate a situation or lends authority to an argument. It’s much harder for readers to discount arguments based on science or statistics if they are bolstered by personal experience.
In a 2017 Motherboard article on pop-cultural representations of eating disorders, Rao, who is Indian-American, drew from her own history of anorexia to comment on how depictions of emaciated white women in TV and film don’t capture the demographics of people affected and the convoluted, sometimes catastrophic course that eating disorders can take. Rao says she decided to include her own experience with the illness because she felt her history illustrates how complex and nuanced eating disorders really are.
First-person narration can add emotional authenticity to a journalistic account. “As journalists, we’re constantly talking to people and asking them to be vulnerable with us, but when you do that to yourself, I think it adds a different layer,” Rao says. “It allows the reader to see that you’re not just parachuting in on an issue. You’re getting in the trenches, and you’re putting yourself in the story in a way that allows it to affect you as well.”
Sometimes, using ‘I’ in the beginning of a story helps set the scene for where the reporter is, who they are with, and what readers should expect. It anchors text to a particular moment. Using first person can also help build narrative tension in a story—for example, in a firsthand account of camping with local rangers under a scarlet macaw’s nest to protect the bird from poachers, or of witnessing what happened when a scientist studying gunshot wounds set up a table in a Baltimore mall.
First-person elements can also serve as a ticking clock for readers, building up the tension while running in tandem with the main arc of the story. For example, in a 2012 Wired feature about computer programming competitions, Leckart entered himself as a novice in a hackathon, urging readers to toggle between his own race to the finish and a broader exploration of the explosion in coding competitions. This type of first-person narrative works well when it remains secondary, Leckart says. “You could strip the entire first-person narrative out of a piece I wrote, and run that piece as is, with the section breaks where they are,” he says.
Personal perspectives can also work as a tool for revealing a reporter’s biases, potential conflicts of interest, or other connections to the story they are reporting on, says Purbita Saha, an assistant editor at Audubon. For example, in a 2016 Audubon story on how an Alaskan Iñupiat community is adapting to climate change, writer Madeline Ostrander used first-person references throughout the piece to acknowledge that she was an outsider looking in on the construction of permafrost-cooling devices and portable homes.
First-person anecdotes can also help lighten the tone of a serious piece or demystify complicated or arcane concepts, such as a convoluted scientific process. Leckart notes, for example, that a lot of the first-person stories he’s written tend toward the whimsical, where he puts himself in uncomfortable and experimental situations.
Other reporters dislike inserting themselves into their stories, but resort to using first person when it becomes unavoidable. “I really hate writing in first person,” says Linda Villarosa, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer and professor at The City College of New York. “I was trained not to rely on it. I use it sparingly, usually pushed by my editor or when there’s no way around it.” That’s sometimes the case, she says, when she needs to connect disparate trajectories in a piece—for example, when describing medical research and the experiences of patients she’s interviewed. Other times, inserting herself into a scene is the only way “to avoid either passive voice or awkward third-person phrasing.”
In a recent feature on infant mortality in the black community, Villarosa narrated the story of Simone Landrum, a New Orleans mother in the final weeks of her fourth pregnancy. Most of the story is in the third person, and Villarosa remains invisible even in key scenes where she was present. But while reporting, Villarosa became intimately involved in Landrum’s story, and there were moments where she ended up becoming part of the action. Describing those situations without resorting to awkward phrasing (“a reporter in the room offered to help”) required inserting herself into the feature.
Villarosa also described the birth of her own daughter, as a way to breathe life into another aspect of the story: the idea that even well-educated black parents who had access to health care and information, as she did, could face grave medical situations during their deliveries.
Making a Scene
Just as reporters carefully decide which studies, data, and experts to include in a health or science story, they must select the right moments before throwing ‘I’ into the mix. “The first-person narrative that you choose should serve a purpose for the piece,” Leckart says.
Knowing in advance whether a story will benefit from first-person narration gives a reporter time to plan their reporting accordingly, sketching out the scenes where they’ll be doing, feeling, or experiencing something, says Nicola Twilley, a contributing writer at The New Yorker, author of the blog Edible Geography, and co-host of the Gastropod podcast. “With every story,” Twilley says, “one of the questions my editor asks me is, ‘What are we going to see in this story?’ He’s really just asking me, ‘What are the scenes?’ ”
For a 2018 story on the neuroscience of pain, Twilley wanted to explore the history of pain and the challenge scientists face in studying such a subjective experience. She decided readers needed to see her get hurt while an Oxford neuroscientist, Irene Tracey, tried to track the intensity of her pain. Readers join Twilley when she first meets Tracey and climbs into a magnetic-resonance-imaging (MRI) machine wearing a capsaicin patch on her shin—a scene that leads into the history of pain research and the challenge scientists face in quantifying it.
Twilley doesn’t reappear until much later in the story—a conscious decision, she says, to make herself unobtrusive. “You have to choose scenes that do something for your story,” Twilley says. “There’s no need for me to pop up when I’m not experiencing something.”
It takes a little flair for first-person scenes to work. They should convey the reporter’s unique attitude, personality, thoughts, and feelings, Twilley says. After all, it’s the journalist speaking directly to readers. “My personality in the [pain] piece was the person who—like a clown—gets the pie thrown in their face. I get to be hurt and then ask stupid questions,” she says.
First-person stories that lay out a writer’s gaps in knowledge in explicit terms may end up being more powerful accounts. But not every piece benefits from including some first-person flair. News reports still need to follow the format of news reports, Twilley says. And some features may work better if the writer’s personality and voice remain understated.
Using First-Person Narration Carries Risks
Weaving the reporter’s own experiences into stories does pose some risks. One is the risk of navel-gazing. It can be tempting to use first-person anecdotes to write detailed descriptions of the reporter on location—whether it’s out in the field or in a researcher’s office. But first-person narration shouldn’t be treated as merely an opportunity to show off that a journalist did some on-the-ground reporting. Nor should it be an excuse for long ruminative paragraphs about why a reporter is there in the first place. Such treatises are “the journalistic equivalent of the world’s longest slide show of some stranger’s vacation,” says Martha Harbison, a network content manager at Audubon.
Journalists also need to make sure their first-person voice is engaging, and that there is enough action and detail in their anecdotes to keep readers excited. “If you’re going to use your voice like that, make sure that you’re interesting or that the scene you’re setting is interesting,” Harbison advises.
Another common pitfall of first-person anecdotes is that they may come off as heavy-handed or out of touch. In stories that involve under-represented minorities, people with disabilities, or communities in developing countries, first-person narratives may overshadow key sources. For example, when white journalists from the U.S. cover Latin American environmental issues, “it can feel imperialistic or colonialist if a white person is speaking for the locals,” says Harbison. They advise only using first-person anecdotes as a back-up—for example, if sources who are central to the story are not very forthcoming in interviews, or if their comments don’t translate well into English.
When done well, first-person narration can serve as a nod to the fact that each journalist works through a particular lens, and it can be a powerful tool for storytelling. When a writer expresses where they stand, readers get permission to ask their own questions. As Nichols notes, that’s what makes first-person narratives both entertaining and informative: They expose how difficult it is to get at the truth.
Knvul Sheikh is a freelance writer and a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, Popular Science, Scholastic, Scientific American, and more. Knvul has lived in the foothills of the Himalayas in Pakistan, swum in the tropical waters of Singapore, and backpacked across the South Island of New Zealand. She is currently based in New York City and can be found on Twitter @KnvulS.