Me, 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, timeframe, 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.)

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79 thoughts on “Me, myself and why: Learn to avoid yourself when writing in first-person

  1. Ned, this was excellent and timely advise. Thank you.

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

    @ Mama Michelle. You’re question rocked, girlfriend. You know anything related to solar flares gives me the warm fuzzies. 😉

    • Ahhhh….Victoria has warm fuzzies!
      Ned said Astral (Beavis and Butthead giggles all around!)
      It’s so difficult to even write this reply without throwing a bit of “me, myself and I” into it. Dr. Ned–you have uncovered (and remedied) a serious problem!
      Thank you so much! Off to read the rest of the comments…those are the best!

  2. Terrific advice. Cutting out the use of ‘I’ can be difficult while blogging, since posts often entail updates about the bloggers’ lives, but I think there are still ways to do it. Must improve on that myself.

  3. This is not excellent and not timely.
    As I was just writing about ME MYSELF AND I. NO THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

    SO now what!?! Now what ned!?!
    Do I let it sit in draft?!? Do I continue on Ned?

    Well?

    While I sit in mire and thrust myself on the floor in MY OWN FIT …..
    The rest of you go buy NEDS BOOK.
    I’ll figure something out …

  4. This is terrifying – makes ME never want to write another post for fear of running people off! Eeek! Great advice though. Sigh. I’m totally using this when I take up knitting.

  5. I worry about this all the time, Ned. So much of the storytelling I do is about my personal recent or distant past.

    And I fear the self-centeredness that comes along with that type of storytelling.

    Do you think there are exceptions? Where maybe if you’re telling some honest story in an effort to do some self-exploration on topics others can relate to, that maybe it’s not so bad?

    I certainly try to use “We” and “Us” as often as possible. But if the entire post is a story about me?

    I lack the writing skills to start including readers in there without it looking like I’m just arbitrarily tossing them into my stories and making up scenarios they weren’t involved in.

    “Hey Matt!!! That’s crap. I never once said or did those things with you! I live in Malaysia. You live in Ohio. It’s not even possible without omnipresence, and even if it was, it still wouldn’t have happened because I don’t like you because you use “I” and “me” too much when you write.”

    I need help.

    • Don’t be afraid to write in the first person if that is what puts words on paper. You can fix anything but a blank page.

      Ned makes a great point. Try this, write what comes naturally then in your re-writes, count the number of times you used first-person pronouns. That is what Ned was doing when he wrote, “…Okay, fine. Ten times.”

      Heck, even highlight those pronouns..

      Then brutally slice a few out.

      It is wonderful writing practice and even better therapy.

    • You know Matt, there is an exception — or at least some wiggle room — to the First-Person “I” rule when you’re talking about emotional or self-realization subject matter. When you’re revealing truths about yourself, readers will give you more latitude, especial if it includes some self-depreciation. The only thing you have to watch out for is becoming preachy. I’ve read some of your stuff, and you incorporate these things into your writing whether you realize it or not. I never felt it was preachy or self-serving — I guess what I’m saying is that you’re doing good work. Keep it up and it’s okay to question yourself and your methods from time to time; it keeps your writing honest 😉

  6. I and only I have solved the first person conundrum by employing a great work-around. I begin by explaining that the successful and wealthy hunk heretofore known as “you” is really “me”. From then on, I describe myself as you from every glorious angle using the second person perspective.

    The reader is fully aware that when I am talking about them, I am really talking about myself but since it sounds like I am talking about them, they can fool themselves into thinking that I give a rip about them…

    Hell, who are these readers anyway?

  7. I write flash fiction and shorts a lot, so have experimented with first and third. Either is viable, however my preference is not to use first with a long piece, primarily because it’s such an intimate POV.

    If the protag is interesting or unreliable, this is great, otherwise, from a reader’s perspective, having the camera stuck behind one character’s eyes all the way through can be tiresome if not written well.

    eden

    • I totally agree, Eden. Unless you have created a truly compelling character readers want to follow, long pieces in the first person are difficult to pull off. I do think, however, that in mystery/suspense, the lone POV can be especially effective because the reader is discovering things at the same time as the character, which can be exciting.

  8. Hey! Me again 🙂
    You’ve done so much work already AND you have all that wood to stack…..one more question?
    Any chance you have some good writing examples/authors you can point to for Ominscent and Last person?

  9. Would you write posts using each POV on upcoming Ned Nickel series posts? I write as I think, so I guess I only ever write in FP. Since my blog is a personal one, Im not sure how to incorporate the other perspectives. Or even if I should. LOL, there are more FP pronouns in this than your whole post.. 🙂

    • LOL! I don’t think Third-Person or Omniscient would work for your blog, because of it’s such a personal take on things. Unless it’s fictional, stick with First-Person.

      And just so you don’t feel bad, Me Me Me Me My My My My I I I I I ….

  10. Good advice again Ned.
    In future the number of times ‘I’ is used will be counted on VW’s blog posts and then edited.
    ps notice how many times the word ‘I’ was used in this comment? It was bloody hard work trying to avoid it!

  11. I wrote my comedy/action/sci-fi series from the first person viewpoint… but as an alien who knows and sees all, but never actively participates… so I can talk about me, but I am really talking about him… if you see what I mean.

  12. This was actually a great post. (The first one I’ve read from your blog, but I actually really liked it). I can’t help but wish there had been a longer explanation/example of the Last Person voice, as I’d never heard of it (not even in literature classes, and I took a couple of those in college). I’ve been toying with writing for a while now and, though I don’t think I’m much good, I at least like to write things I don’t hate to re-read and this all helps.

    • Hi Lina!

      I’m glad you liked the post. There’s a whole bunch of them on writing under “Ned’s Nickel’s Worth” which you might actually like as well. But no guarantees 😉 And I have to admit, the “Last Person” voice is something I made up. You’re not the first person to ask, so now I feel kind of bad. Maybe I’ll expound on it in a future NWOW and start a whole new craze.

      By the way, whether you think you’re good or not has no baring on whether you are or aren’t a writer. If you spend time with words, trying to find the right ones in order to convey your thoughts, impressions or ideas — welcome aboard the writing train 😉

      Thanks for stopping in, Lina!

  13. Ned, I’ve got a nickel’s worth of ePublishing advice for you: Ned’s Nickel’s Worth of Writing Advice…The eBook!

    It’ll take you a few hours. Collect all of your NWOW articles, paste them into an eBook format, edit, rinse, repeat, publish to the web through KDP, Lulu, Gumroad, whoever. Charge a dollar or two. I’ll buy it. If your six hours total work going into making it isn’t worth my two dollars, I don’t blame you.

    I also want to address your advice. Yesterday I read a blog post about writing more interesting and engaging blog posts. First of all, I’m getting sick of reading blogs about writing blogs, I need to stop doing that. I like your writing advice because it is genuine writing advice and not SEO bait. I’m getting off topic. The topic of that post I read yesterday was to use less “we” and more “I” statements as it is more authentic and engaging. You suggest the opposite. The other author said “we” is too neutral. I think I see what he is saying and what you are saying and I think there is a similar thread. Replace think with know. I get it. It is interesting that both perspectives on perspective have significance thought they seem contradictory. My take away is that the writer should be involved with the reader while making the writing about the reader while sharing the experience or authority of the writer without making it about the writer’s experience or authority.

    It’s great advice you offer. I’m looking forward to the writer I’m becoming, slowly, through experience, and of course, NWOW.

    • Thanks, Paul — and you got me thinking about the eBook version of my NWOW, if nothing more than a way for me to explore that venue. Plus it could be fun. At some point, I’m thinking about publishing an actual book on writing, along the same vein as my NWOW, but expanding on the different topics. And by that I don’t just mean eating Twinkies while I’m writing it.

      I often think there’s a lot more I could write on a topic but don’t want to end up with a 2,000-word post. The eBook format might be the answer.

      Oh, and I understand what you were saying about the contradiction between the two points of view on writing/avoiding too many “I” and “me” references. The easiest rule of thumb to remember on that subject is this:

      I am — and by that I mean “we” are — always right… 😉

      • That’s deep, Ned. Twinkies.

        eBooks are fun to write. They bridge the gap between article and book. Amazon makes it so simple to publish. Of course, since you do have a publisher, maybe going straight for the throat of a traditional book on writing may be more advantageous. Who knows?

  14. Pingback: The night my rump was roasted — a hindsight retrospective | Ned's Blog

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