Finding a place for the first-person voice in the journalism classroom

March 5, 2013

Arthur Boyle joined my Journalism class as a senior –– he had taken my AP Comp class last year, and during spring registration, I badgered him enough about taking journalism the following year that he finally gave in.  I love it when AP Comp students join the journalism class as seniors –– they offer a perspective and maturity that I don’t always see right away with sophomore and junior writers, and they have a grasp of voice and narrative timing that younger writers just don’t have.  They’re also used to coming up with their own ideas and challenging the status quo.

As second semester started, Arthur had an idea for a feature story that challenged one of our basic class guidelines –– he wanted to use first person.  My first reaction was that while first person is fine for opinions pieces and humor columns and maybe reviews, our news, sports, and features stories should be written from an objective perspective.  Then he told me more about his idea — he wanted to write about our own journalism program and give people a sense of the passion of the students on the staff.   Another rule I’ve always had is that the Journalism class doesn’t write about the Journalism class, but since we were breaking one rule, I figured I might as well let him go for it. 

And I’m glad I did too –– that story has opened up a whole avenue for my stronger writers.  And I have to admit, this is, after all, the type of writing I most enjoy reading.  Many of the articles I read in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, or Outside all use first person.   The newspapers I read have columnists who use the first person voice as they share the stories that come across their desks about people from around the state.

I laid out a few guidelines for him –– he could use first person but the bulk of the story would need to come from interviews.  We didn’t need a long narrative that was just his observations, but rather a story where his perspective could add some shape and color to the story.  And I made sure that he understood the difference between good first person and bad first person.  Too often, writers use first person details that are completely unneeded. 

His story on the Journalism program ended up being the one the editors were most interested in publishing, and it’s the story I got the most feedback on from people around school — all positive.  For his second story that uses the first person voice, he tracked down a graduate from 10 years ago who’s started multiple businesses, the latest being a comic book shop and Magic the Gathering destination in downtown Minneapolis.  Another senior writer in the class who was just named valedictorian wanted to write about the experience of being a valedictorian, and she tracked down valedictorians from the last five years to get their perspective and blend it in with her own.  When I checked our Google Analytics traffic for the last month — these three stories were in the top ten most-read stories. 

We have another story in progress about some freshmen who formed their own band, and the writer of this story had a good enough draft, but it felt like it didn’t quite have enough life to it.  When we were talking about the story, she told me that she was the first audience this band had ever had –– it struck me as an interesting detail that could only be included if she embraced the first-person perspective for the story.  She’s now reworking the story to include her own experiences being the band’s first audience, and this first-person voice is allowing her to capture details that otherwise would have gone unreported.

There are times when stories need to maintain an objective distance, but there are a lot of stories in the high-school journalism world that could be made so much more engaging when the writer embraces that experience.  I’m glad that this year’s writers have been willing to try something new.  They’ve proven to me that old writing teacher’s adage:  in order for student writing to be good, students have to write what they know about.