Using Personal Pronouns in Nonfiction Book Writing Image

In English, we use personal pronouns to refer to people. It’s important to know how to use personal pronouns so you don’t have to repeat the name of your subject and object over and over again. Used correctly, personal pronouns improve the flow and readability of your writing.

But when it comes to nonfiction book writing, there are some rules about which personal pronouns you should use. In this article, I’ll explain which pronouns you should be using in your nonfiction book and why.

How to Use Personal Pronouns in Your Nonfiction Writing

Here at TCK Publishing and throughout the standard publishing industry, there are some general rules when it comes to pronouns in nonfiction writing.

Pronouns in fiction are pretty straightforward: Use whatever is appropriate for the voice and tone of your book! In nonfiction, however, it’s important to familiarize yourself with these guidelines so that you can make sure your writing hews to expectations.

Prefer “You”

“You” is the preferred pronoun in almost all nonfiction (with the exceptions of memoir, biography, autobiography, and other narrative-style nonfiction). Whether you’re writing a book on how to start your own business, how to improve your relationships, or the best places to travel with kids, using “you” helps you connect with readers by speaking directly to them.

Take a look at this example:

  • People should exercise every day because it will help them live longer.
  • You should exercise every day because it will help you live longer.

Which example appeals more to your emotions? Which example makes you more inclined to do what the writer suggests? The second one, of course: The sentence is not addressing just anyone—it’s addressing you specifically.

Use First- and Third-Person Pronouns Sparingly

While most of your book should be written with second-person pronouns, there are also instance where first-person and third-person pronouns, both singular and plural, are appropriate. For example:

If you’re relaying an anecdote about yourself or someone you know:

  • When I was a child, I experienced air travel for the first time…
  • Let me tell you about a time that I felt many of the emotions you’re probably feeling now…
  • The founder of Company XYZ is very successful now, but when he was first starting out…

If you’re using social proof and giving an example of how you or someone you know put a recommendation into practice:

  • I was reluctant to try this at first, but once I did, I found it to be quite simple and effective.
  • One of my clients said that he hadn’t felt so good in years, and that he will now be using this tool every day.
  • I know that other methods don’t work because I’ve tried many of them.

If you’re referring to a quote or piece of information given by someone else, or if you’re referring to an expert in your field:

  • Muhammad was the founder of Islam. His philosophy was…
  • Scientists at MIT performed a study on the topic. They found that…
  • Most experts believe that climate change is caused by humans, and they recommend drastic changes to stop it.

If you’re including yourself in a group with your reader to better relate to them:

  • Let’s look at an example…
  • If we all work together, we can create change.

Using first- and third-person pronouns in specific contexts can lend credibility to your work and reinforce your message, but make sure not to rely on them too heavily.

Indefinite Third Person Pronouns

In English, third person singular pronouns are typically gendered: he, his, she, her. When referring to a specific person, you should of course use that person’s preferred pronouns. But when referring to a generic or indefinite person, there are a few different options.

Which option you choose will likely depend on your publisher’s style guide, so be sure to check with them before you forge ahead.

Option 1: Use “their” as a singular pronoun

According to the newest version of the Chicago Manual of Style (the style guide that TCK Publishing and most other trade publishers use), using “their” as a singular third-person (indefinite) pronoun is now acceptable. While some traditional grammarians are still not on board with this usage, you won’t be breaking any rules by doing this.

If you’re submitting your book to TCK, we prefer that authors use “their” as a third-person singular pronoun.

Option 2: Use your own gender

Using your own gender is usually a safe bet when it comes to indefinite pronouns. So if you identify as female, a sentence like this would read:

“A writer should always make sure that her desk is organized.”

While this is a classically grammatically correct option, it can alienate readers of the other gender in certain contexts, and if you choose to use male pronouns, it can read old-fashioned.

Option 3: Alternate between “he” and “she”

You can also switch back and forth between genders to avoid getting stuck on one or the other. So if you use “he” in one paragraph, switch to “she” in the next one.

The drawback of this is that it can be confusing or jarring for readers to be constantly switching back and forth. But if your publisher is okay with it and you’re consistent with your switches, this can be a good option.

Never Use “One” as a Pronoun

In English, “one” is sometimes used as an indefinite pronoun:

  • One’s ability to think critically is essential to one’s success in college-level classes.

Really, the only thing you need to know about “one” in nonfiction book writing is:

Never, ever use “one” as a pronoun.

While “one” is technically not incorrect, it makes your writing sound stilted, old-fashioned, and overly formal. To avoid it, you could rework the above sentence so it reads:

  • Your ability to think critically is essential to your success in college-level classes.

This construction sounds more modern and involves the reader in your writing.

Speak to Your Reader

When possible, it is best to speak directly to your reader using second person pronouns when writing a nonfiction book, except in the case of narrative nonfiction.

Using “you” will keep your readers engaged and make them feel more invested in what you have to say—and that’s every nonfiction writer’s hope.

How do you use personal pronouns in your writing? Tell us in the comments below!

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Melissa Drumm

Melissa Drumm is a lifelong book lover. She is passionate about helping authors make their work the best it can be. You can find some of her writing here on the TCK blog, and learn more about her other projects at melissadrumm.com. When she's not writing, editing, or reading, you'll usually find her in the kitchen, baking.