All for Me

Any author writing a novel or a memoir in the I-voice can expect to write a lot of first-person pronouns. The usage is increased when writing in a colloquial style, since the author issues opinions, feelings, and the like as a way to include the reader in the storytelling. Like any other element in prose, however, reader fatigue can set in when I or me appears too often. How can you limit the frequency so that the first-person commentary stays fresh and effective?

A first pointer is eliminating mentions that come naturally when spoken. In prose the I-voice approach renders them gratuitous. If you use the common phrase “It seemed to me,” you have to stop and think. The whole book is according to your standpoint, so why use “to me”? One of the advantages of writing is that you can trim the often flabby realm of speech to greater concision. Look for all of the “to me” and “for me” expressions, and delete three-quarters of them.

Second, and along the same lines, look for expressions like “I saw” and “I thought.” Take for example: “I saw him duck his head inside the fancy Lincoln Town Car.” If you are present on the scene, the reader assumes that everything is being told from your purview. Just tell what happened without mentioning your eyes. The phrase “I thought” has more merit, because sometimes delivering a clear opinion helps the reader feel the emotion more strongly. Yet most of the time the same rule applies: aren’t you delivering your pronouncements on all of the proceedings? Again, a global search can delete three-quarters of them.

A third area consists of obvious opinions. These occur most often during passages featuring dialogue. If you have already established a viewpoint—say, your opposition to guns—you don’t need to tell us every time what you think when a hunter is speaking to you. Many times, in fact, you’re better off letting the statement hang by itself, since the reader is then given the chance to guess what you might think. Establishing viewpoints is a cumulative process, so the deletions of such comments occur more often later in the book.

Exercise: You should look for passive sentence construction, especially things happening “to me.” There is a greater chance that a self-reference will occur when a sentence begins with “There is” or “It is.” That’s because you have no subject that controls the sentence. Compare “It was useless trying to win this war of words with me” to “He was wasting his time trying to win this war of words.”

“Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.”
—Herman Hesse

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.