The Ubiquitous I
Updated: Dec 24, 2022
Before choosing to purchase any novel from the bookstore, I read its first two paragraphs. While this isn't uncommon for people do, they may not do it for the reason I do.
You may recall from your school days that when you write a report about Papilionidae butterflies, you’re not supposed to use the word, “I,” as in, “I researched....” Instead, your report should read more like, “Research shows that....”
During my day job, I may write twenty email a day. Rarely do I use the word, “I.” Instead of, “I submitted the procedure to be released” I write, “The procedure has been submitted for release.”
"Has been" employs the passive voice, a retched taboo in fiction, as opposed to the confident, "I submitted..." But engineering communications aren't fiction. When I read some of my fellow engineers’ email which say, “I did this," or "I did that,” an uncomfortable feeling wells within me because we’re all on the same team, much like an infantry platoon, but with less shooting.
Getting back to novels, I read their first two paragraphs to determine if they're written in first or third person.
Too many stories today are written in first person. This is probably because with first person, it’s much easier to make characters sound genuinely hurt or discouraged when they describe their traumas and disappointments in their own words.
Meaning, it’s cheating. And reading a story written in first person is akin to voyeurism, as if you’ve sneaked into someone’s bedroom and begun to read their diary hidden in the back of the third drawer of their dresser.
Writers nowadays should have sufficient confidence in themselves to write in third person, like famous grown-up authors have done for millennia. Of course, there are always exceptions.
I still haven’t gotten to the main point of this post. This is because the most important parts of life require time to settle in. Everything shouldn’t be told in a frantic hurry.
Examples of avoiding “I”
A common problem beginning authors have when writing in first person is to overuse the word, “I.” Many publishers will read a few paragraphs of a manuscript, and if they find too many “I”s, they set it down.
To be encouraging rather than berating, here are three excerpts from famous novels written in first person which avoid heavy use of the singular pronoun, “I”:
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremist limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
“What does that paragraph have anything to do with ‘I’?” you ask. It has everything to do with it! Every word describes the main character’s disdain for “inlanders,” who think they’re someone or something by simply standing at the water's edge. He’s deriding them. He’s telling them off! And yet, Melville doesn’t write a single, “I think that...” or “I see them standing there.” Yet, when reading the paragraph, we “see” him watching those people and shaking his head.
This hotel—the Amazon—was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age, with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure their daughters would be living where men couldn’t get at them and deceive them; and they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and junior executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Here Sylvia Plath cleverly avoids the word “I” by replacing it with “they.” It’s clear that the character has found herself among the somewhat hollow higher-up-type of people sheltered from much of real life. Even though the paragraph is written in first person, it doesn’t feel that way.
Following Lily is easy. Her long Bostonian body lurches from one touch point to the next at an impressive clip. She is suspicious and fearless, and her progress is alarming. She never passes any vertical shape without grabbing it and feeling it to make sure what it is. Telephone poles, stop signs—she runs at them, catches hold as though just saved from falling, gives them an exploratory rub with each hand, and then, tossing her head back, pushes off toward the next upright shadow that smears across her eye. Lily also uses humans this way. I have seen her move through twenty blocks of crowded noontime sidewalks, swinging from one startled pedestrian to another, grabbing one by a shoulder, patting in examination, while stretching out an arm to snatch at the breasts of the next one in her path. When someone takes offense, snaps or swears or pushes her away, she reels only momentarily before the next body presents itself and she hurtles on, using body after body as handholds through the air.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
Even though the above passage is written in first person, the word “I” appears exactly once. Katherine Dunn doesn’t even replace “I” with words like “they” or “we.”
How to avoid overuse of I
One of the great rules of fiction writing is to R.U.E., or “Resist the urge to explain.” Meaning, let your readers feel smart and capable and don’t hand-hold them through insulting explanations.
Think about the following sentence:
“I don’t like it when Samantha slaps people.”
Compare it to:
“Samantha shouldn’t slap people.”
The second sentence assumes that the character doesn’t like it when Samantha slaps people. But such is not explicitly stated. The second sentence helps create a bond between the author and the reader because bonds require trust—where the author trusts the reader to understand who is thinking what.
What about this paragraph:
“I see that the gray buildings of Wilmington Bay have a worn and faded calmness compared to the stiff, chaotic brush and oak trees scattered about the valley. I think Nature is pretty, but it isn’t comfortable. People in Wilmington Bay look older to me than other people in the valley. I’m deciding that the end of this valley is also the end of life.”
Compare it to the following:
“The gray buildings of Wilmington Bay have a worn and faded calmness compared to the stiff, chaotic brush and oak trees scattered about the valley. Nature is pretty, but it isn’t comfortable. People in Wilmington Bay seem older than other people in the valley. It must be that the end of this valley is also the end of life.”
Hanover, J.J. Richardson
The only difference between the two paragraphs is the second removes phrases such as “I see” and “I think.”
Use of the word “I” is analogous to use of dialogue tags (“he said,” “she said”) within conversations. Dialogue tags in literary writing can often be removed because readers already know who’s talking. Likewise, readers usually know that the thoughts presented on the page belong to the character.
If we want to immerse our readers into our stories, we want our characters’ thoughts to also be our readers’ thoughts. This can’t happen if the text constantly reminds the readers that the thoughts they’re reading belong to Cindy or Steven or whoever the character is, and not the reader.
Quit overusing the pronoun “I” in your writing so that your masterpieces read more confident and experienced and less condescending.
At least, that’s what I think.