Avoiding the Majestic Plural

Did  I do something, or did we do something? Whether to write "I" or "we" is a common dilema in instructional writing. Technology publishers – including the one I currently work for – generally prefer to avoid the majestic plural, sometimes referred to as the royal "we". Following is some advice to help you make the right call on when to use these two, oft-troublesome words.

Don’t write “we” when what you say does not truly apply to both you and the reader. For example:

Bad: As we read this chapter, we will learn…

The above is terrible, because it is the reader who reads the chapter. You are the author. You wrote the chapter. And presumably you have already learned the material. Much better is to say:

Good: As you read this chapter, you will learn…

Here you are speaking directly to the reader. That should be your ultimate goal.

A good use of “we” is to legitimately include both yourself and the reader in the statement. For example:

Good: We all need to become better PL/SQL programmers.

This usage is fine. Both you and your readers can certainly hope to become better programmers.

Sometimes you will be tempted to use the word “we” as you work through an example. Authors often cite the belief that doing so makes the text seem friendlier. For example:

Bad: As we work through the example, we will see…

Are you and the reader really working through the example together, at the same time? Are you both learning something new? At least banish the second “we” and write “you will see” instead:

Tolerable: As we work through the example, you will see…

 This version maintains the fiction of author and reader working side-by-side, but at least it acknowledges that the reader is the one doing the learning. Even better is to go with "you" consistently, because it really is the reader who is working the example at the moment in time when s/he reads the text. For example:

Better: As you work through the example, you will see…

It is a nice touch if you don’t overuse the word “I”. Consider the following statement of belief, which is a form of overuse:

Overuse: I believe that PL/SQL is the best programming language ever.

 The words “I believe” weaken the sentence. They are weasel-words. If you believe something, then state it. If you feel the need to preface with “I believe”, then you don’t really believe. So state your opinion boldly, as in:

Better: PL/SQL is the best programming language ever.

Readers will understand that you are giving an opinion. You are the author of the text. Everything you say is your opinion as a given.

What about contributing to a book having more than one author? Do you write for yourself, or for the group? Generally, it's best to give the sense of the entire group of authors speaking as a unit. For example:

Optimal: We’ve created a PL/SQL package to illustrate the technique in this chapter…

Suboptimal: I’ve created a PL/SQL package to illustrate the technique in this chapter…

An exception is when each chapter is labeled with a byline indicating that specific chapter's author. When each chapter gets a byline, then the author of each chapter is known to the reader, and it's perfectly reasonable then for each author to speak for him- or herself.

Sometimes a copyeditor will deliberately allow the suboptimal choice. Sometimes authors in a multi-author book are so used to writing "I" instead of "we" that they write "I" consistently across all the chapters in the book. Consistency being a hallmark of good writing, copyeditors will often choose to let such usage stand rather than to waste time and energy in making global changes.

The bottom line is to choose between "I" and "we" based upon whether what you are saying applies to just you as the author, or to both you and the reader together at the same moment in time. Write "I" when speaking for yourself. Write "we" in a multi-author book to give the sense of all authors speaking together as a single unit. Otherwise, limit use of "we" to only those statements that legitimately will apply to both you and the reader at the moment the reader actually reads your text.

Jonathan Gennick