Writing Mistakes: Overusing “I” within first person fiction

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Photo by: Dade Freeman

One of the more common first person themes I have seen within my writer’s group is the overuse of pronouns (I, me, my), with “I” being the biggest offender. This theme is really noticeable when the pronouns come at the beginning of multiple sentences within a given section. For example:

I was so hot that sweat poured down my face. I ran across the street to the hotdog stand. I asked the vendor for a bottle of soda. The moment he handed it to me, I guzzled it down so fast that I barely tasted it.

Pronouns, when overused, tend to draw too much attention to the character (as in: HEY, LOOK AT ME AND WHAT I AM SAYING, DOING, ETC!) versus focusing on the story unfolding before them. They are also guilty of carrying a lot of filter words, as if the reader needs to be told who is doing the seeing, hearing, touching, etc.

How do you limit “I” and other pronouns?

To combat the overuse of “I” at the start of first person narrative, you can often just cut it out:

  • Instead of “I saw the duck dive in the pond,” you could say, “The duck dove into the pond.”
  • Instead of “I heard thunder crack high in the clouds,” you could say, “Thunder cracked high in the clouds.”
  • Instead of “I could smell the buttery goodness of the biscuits in the air,” you could say, “The buttery goodness of the biscuits filled the air.”
  • Instead of “I realized Jane had clearly lied to her parents. I wonder why they were so forgiving?” you could say, “Jane had clearly lied to her parents. Why are they so forgiving?”

You can also get creative by cutting out the pronoun and moving or introducing new words:

  • Instead of “On the other hand, I could really use a break,” you could say, “On the other hand, a break would be nice.”

If the problem is that you’re often using “I” at the beginning of sentences, and you are having difficulty finding other ways to convey the narrative, you could just move the pronoun to “tone it down” within the narrative:

  • Instead of “I closed my eyes, leaned in, and kissed Jane on the lips,” you could say, “Leaning in with eyes closed, I kissed Jane on the lips.”

Other options are to swap out “I” for other pronouns (me, my), but overusing these can be equally noticeable and hazardous:

  • Instead of “I couldn’t contain my joy at seeing Jane again,” you could say, “My heart swelled at the sight of Jane rounding the corner.”

Not saying that using pronouns (I, me, my) is wrong or bad, just be sure you are using them effectively and not just throwing them onto the page haphazardly. Do your best to keep the focus on what unfolds before the first person narrator and not making the narrative all about keeping focus on the character themselves (ie look at me!).

Want a challenge? Write down 600 words of first person narrative and only use 3 pronouns. (And don’t cheat by writing 600 words of scenery!) If you can incorporate dialog, actions, scenery, etc and not overuse pronouns, you are well on your way to being an effective first-person writer – IMHO.

 

And there you have it — a few ways to limit the overuse of “I” and other pronouns within first-person perspective. I hope this information helps you in some way. If you have any thoughts or ideas to share, please leave a comment.

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