The Problem with I

Journalists justifiably feel proud when they venture out and capture a good story. That news would not have reached the light of day without them. It takes a special type of person to do that, and they know it. I have never met a reporter who lacked self-confidence.

Excelling at a short form does not, however, guarantee success at book length. The studious hiding behind the stage curtain—merely the microphone at the interview, folks—is harder to accomplish over a long span of pages. The author may be swayed toward injecting personal opinions on the proceedings. After all, they know the real low-down on this creep, and that simply isn’t emerging in the tale they’re telling.

Worst of all is a reporter becoming the center of the story. Because they were granted exclusive access to luminary X, they fall into the delusion that the narrative should be governed by their relationship to X. The story starts when they meet X. The affection or disaffection that marked the relationship becomes an integral part of the tale. The steps along the way become tinted by the reporter’s interpretation of whether that scoundrel X was lying or not.

In the meantime, the reader’s is kept at arm’s length from the subject—uh, the person whose picture on the cover caused us to pick up the book in the first place. Such vital elements as chronology can be subverted to the author’s chronology with X. The selection of victims can be limited to the author’s personal knowledge of victims, often because of laziness to do the research required to fill out a proper list. Lowest of all are the frequent tangents in which the all-knowing author relates examples from their own career of reporting to supplement the events X experienced.

At this point self-confidence has fully descended to arrogance. The author has committed the worst excesses of using a first-person narration. Far from being a microphone, the reporter becomes the story. That doesn’t even serve the author well, since such a manuscript may be summarily rejected by a publisher.

Experience in journalism applies to the long form as well. If you are to step out from behind the curtain, a wave now and then to the audience will suffice. They are, after all, interested in what is happening onstage.

Exercise: Review the manuscript and stop every time you see the word “I.” In that case, would it be better for the narration to remain neutral? A fact is a fact, whether you are telling it or not. Then go beyond that. Is your opinion about the matter necessary? Do the facts speak for themselves? You will find, by pruning 80% of such personal interpolations, that the story gains much more authority than you could ever provide.

“We are the recorders and reporters of facts—not the judges of the behaviors we describe.”
—Alfred Kinsey

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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