Ever listen to a conversation where “I” was the predominate word? I did this, I did that, I went here, I went there… I, I, I, I.
After awhile, the picture is etched that the person talking is really into themselves.
The same idea applies to writing in first person. As the writer and storyteller, it’s easy for us to get going in the first person narrative and forget to not let the “I’s” have it.
When I started working with editor Ami McConnell, she warned me. “Watch the overuse of I.”
“Hnnm, in first person?” I thought, but answered, “Okay, I’ll do that, very good idea.”
Yes, it’s way easier said than done. It takes time, rethinking and rewriting to avoid the over use of I, or starting every sentence in a paragraph with that same slim pronoun.
Okay, I can hear the question, “How can I avoid ‘I” when writing in first person?”
You can’t, but you can change the way you structure a sentence to minimize I’s effect or to omit it completely. I found it hard at first to adjust my I sentences, but after awhile, it became a habit.
Here’s an example in my just finished work, Sweet Caroline (Feb 2008):
No answer. I check the pantry. “You here?” Still no answer. The kitchen feels cold and abandoned. Regret strangles my heart from some dark inner place, but I refuse to surrender.
After reading this short paragraph, the last phrase “but I refuse to surrender” doesn’t feel necessary. Or, it could be reworded to “but surrender is not an option.”
Frankly, the sentence really ends with “Regret strangles my heart from some dark inner place.” The reader gets the picture. When the galley’s come, I’ll edit out the last part.
Here’s another example:
I slumped down against the side of the boat, pillowing my head against a life jacket. “I’m not sure Mitch ever knew.”
This is a perfecty fine sentence, but it could be reworded to read, “Slumping down against the side of the boat, I pillow my head against a life jacket.”
Here, “I” is buried in the middle of the paragraph. It doesn’t stand out as much, but communicates as effectively as the first sentence.
Take a look at something you’re reading or writing in first person, and see if those “I’s” don’t stare at you from the page. If you see a sentence or paragraph with three, four or five “I’s” rewrite it, figuring out a way to trim them down.
Listen to me now, this is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. Some sentences and dialog will have I’s, it can’t be helped. This Doc Chat is just to make you aware.
Avoiding the overuse of I does make our work stronger, and causes us to go deeper in the character’s POV and with our own writing to NOT let the “I’s” have it.
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