My, myself and why: learn to avoid yourself when writing in first-person

image It’s time for Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, a weekly feature that Publishers Digest has called “Tips from a writer worth his salt. And we all know how expensive salt is…” For those who might be visiting for the first time, perhaps at gun point (thanks Mom!), this is when I draw upon my 15 years as a newspaper columnist to offer writing tips some people have mistaken as insightful. Occasionally even inflammatory. Depending on what they ate the night before. I’d like to point out that today’s topic actually came from blogger Michelle at MamaMickTerry, who asked:

What are the compositional and elemental changes in astral rock once it passes through a solar flare?

Since she is the first person to ever ask me that question, we will be talking about first-person perspective in writing, and why it’s important to avoid overuse of “I” “Me” “My” and “Astral Rock.”

First, let’s do a quick overview of the four main voices authors use when writing:

1) Omniscient — This is the all-seeing God-like voice, which was coincidentally used by my ex-wife. Haha! Just kidding! (she probably heard that). This voice allows the author unlimited access to any character, time frame, observation and inner monologue…

I am the all-powerful, all-knowing Omniscient Voice! I can be anywhere I want, any time I want, with access to anything I want, including any gas station restroom without lugging a key attached to the rim of a 1974 Gremlin!

2) First-Person — For many reasons, this is the most common voice writers use. It establishes a sense of immediacy and connection by allowing the author to speak from a singular perspective, therefore keeping the reader privy to only the main character’s knowledge and thoughts. It’s an especially effective choice for writers with a strong, stylish voice. If William Hung is reading this, I would highly discourage you from taking this approach…

I am First-Person perspective! Everything is in relation to me, my thoughts, and what I say. I hope you like me. If not, I will try telling you even more about me so I can bond with you, but not in an E.L. James kind of way… which reminds me, have I told you what my new safe word is? That’s right! “Me!”

More on this in a bit.

3) Third-Person — Think of it as the demi-God of Omniscient Voice; it has some God-like powers by allowing the author to shift points of view — but to a limited capacity. All observations, thoughts and dialogue must be linked to character perspectives. There is no external narrative and limited opportunity for foreshadowing. The advantage is that it allows more exploration of characters and situations than First-Person, but without the additional burden of establishing an Omniscient narrative. William Hung, if you’re still reading, think of it as you singing, but with a choice of back-up singers to drown out your voice…

I am Third-Person perspective! I can do things that mortal First-Person can’t do, but I will never live up to the expectations of my Omniscient-Voice father! Stop talking to yourself, TP! Sorry dad! *whimpers*

And finally,

4) Last-Person perspective — The least popular and most difficult technique a writer can attempt, mostly because Last-Person voice always goes something like this…

I just got here, so what did I miss? WHAT?! Why am I ALWAYS the last person to know!

Now that we’ve established a basic overview of the four main voices authors utilize, let’s focus on today’s topic: Why did Juan Pablo give Sharleen the first-impression rose?!?

Hmmm? Oh, right! I meant the First-Person rose. Whoops! How embarrassing! I mean avoiding Sharleen when writing First-Person perspective.

The same things that make writing from the First-Person so effective in establishing a relationship with your reader can just as quickly end that relationship — for the same reason many relationships end: Too much focus on “Me,” “My” and “I.”

Although improper handling of the toilet seat is a close second.

According to the word count indicator, we are 684 words into this post. Including the references I’m about to make, the “I” or “Me” words have been used nine times. And because I know some of you are now going back to count, I’ll wait here…

…Okay, fine. Ten times.

The point is, one of the easiest ways for a columnist to avoid too many “I” references is to replace them with “We” when possible. Not only do you cut down on the “I” words, but you also make the reader feel they are part of what’s happening. Assuming they want to, which isn’t always the case with my readers.

But you get the idea.

While this technique doesn’t necessarily apply to novel writing, the basic principles of avoiding too many references to yourself are the same. Let’s take that last paragraph and change it to how it could have been written by using more “I” words…

MY point is, one of the easiest ways for ME to avoid too many “I” references is by replacing them with “We” whenever I can. Not only do I cut down on the “I” words, but it also helps ME make the MY readers feel they are part of what I’M writing…

Have you seen paragraphs like that before? I mean, other than in the last 15 seconds? It makes you want to stop reading because the writer is talking at you instead of with you. This brings us back to the relationship analogy, and why it’s important to look at your writing — whether it be a column, blog post or novel — as a conversation with someone you are in a relationship with. Because you are. If you’re doing all the talking, the other person will stop engaging in the conversation and, eventually, they will find someone else. Probably at a book store. A lot of authors make the mistake of viewing their writing as a one sided conversation. This is particularly easy to do when writing in the First-Person voice.

So how do you avoid too many “I” references while still establishing your voice? Again, it’s relationship time. Once you’ve written your first draft, go back over it with your reader in mind and eliminate those “I” references — either with a simple “We” fix or, if necessary, by re-working the passages to be more inclusive. That said, avoid going to the polar opposite with your revisions because again, like a relationship, you can’t lose yourself entirely.

Juan Pablo… I hope you’re listening.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications.)

  2 comments for “My, myself and why: learn to avoid yourself when writing in first-person

  1. January 14, 2014 at 12:59 am

    Great advice. Thanks for that Ned.
    And I have nothing witty to say, except pass the Cheetos! :)

    • January 14, 2014 at 6:03 am

      You’re welcome, Suz. And for the record, anything involving Cheetos is witty ;)

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