Writing Tips: Ease up on the I

This post grew out of a conversation I had in a group online. This person wrote about feeling like she was overusing the ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘I’ when writing. I gave my 5 cents (2 cents are no longer legal currency where I am, so… *smile*). I thought I’d reproduce it here (with minor editing) in case this is a question you have and you find it to be of any help. We’re all on a learning curve so be sure to share your tips as well.

Different writers have different ways of dealing with this. And one thing you can do to learn strategies for handling this is read, read a lot, read a lot of different writers, and perhaps especially writers working in the genre in which you hope to break through (but, seriously, don’t limit yourself). Reading and reading widely is one of the ways I learn…often without consciously realizing it.

The overuse of the he, she, I may or may not be a problem (only you, and maybe your early readers will be able to say for sure), but don’t worry about it so much in the first draft. This is a worry best left for the re-drafting phase (reading out loud and hearing how it hits your ear is one strategy), and for when you and your editor tug-o-war over all of your excesses.

That said, below is an exercise I came up with to illustrate one way of troubleshooting this issue, since I do better at show than tell. I should insert here that in creating this exercise I did a visual prompt using a Heather Doram painting which was an also-ran for the original Dancing Nude in the Moonlight cover, and is now a piece of art hanging in my home (i.e. not an also-ran with me).

Sample 1 (four I’s) –
“I am wearing a yellow top, the kind of yellow you only ever see on an overripe mango. Still he has eyes only for her. And she does not see him. I set the breakfast platter down before him. Slices of semi-hard soursop and pulped green pawpaw. Picked from the trees out back. It is all we have, and I know she’s mad at me for giving it to him, mad at him for taking it, for eating us out of house and home while not providing for his son, the son he holds in his arms while crooning an old Spanish lullabye. I recognize it. Mami used to sing it to us back in the DR, back when we were little and still sisters, instead of women being held at arms-length, on opposite sides of this man we both want.”

There are four I’s in this excerpt. The first ‘I’ establishes whose perspective we’re in, then I trust the reader to understand that the observations that come after are from that established perspective. So there’s no “I see his eyes on her; I watch her go out of her way to ignore him”, just focusing on describing what she sees and how she reads it. The next ‘I’ is her next action (as opposed to her observations) then a description of the thing being acted upon – varying the rhythm of the sentences. And then curving into a recollection without needing to say I remember – I think what I’m trying to say is that for me if the point of view is successfully established, while completely removing personal pronouns is not doable (though maybe there is a writer out there who has managed to remove them altogether, and if you can rec them that’d be cool to read) overuse is manageable by trusting the voice and trusting the reader, paying attention to the rhythm of the narrative.

In the second version of the excerpt, along with a few other edits for flow, I’ve cut two of the ‘Is’.

Sample 2 (two I’s) –
“I am wearing a yellow top, the kind of yellow you only ever see on an overripe mango. Still he has eyes only for her, though she does not see him. I set the breakfast platter down before him. Slices of semi-hard soursop and pulped green pawpaw. Picked from the trees out back. It is all we have; por cierto, she’s mad at me for giving it to him, mad at him for taking it, for eating us out of house and home while not providing for his son, the son he holds in his arms, lips curving familiarly around an old Spanish lullabye. It’s one Mami used to sing to us back in the DR, back when we were little and still sisters, instead of women being held at arms-length, on opposite sides of this man we both want.”

Again these are just rough drafts of nothing just to try to illustrate my point. You’ve always heard of ‘you understood’, the same can apply to use of these other pronouns; once the who has been established, give the reader some credit, and ease up on the repetition. ‘llow the I.

This is a link you might also find useful (it primarily recommends varying the active and the passive to eliminate some of the I’s).

If this is something you have an issue with, hope this helps. Be sure to share your ideas as well. I’m here not only to teach but to learn.

And remember if you’re looking for a writing coach or workshop experience, I offer those along with writing and editing services.

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