1. live2write
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    live2write Contributing Member

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    How to Stop saying "I" all the time

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by live2write, Apr 13, 2015.

    Sorry if this has been posted already. But in a first person story, how many "I's" is too much.

    I have taken some of the recent books I have read and highlighted these. I want to know how much is too much because as you can see with my writing, I do it way too much.

    There are breaks I have done where I would describe detail or action of the situation and characters. In general, does anybody have any advice, thoughts or confused?
     
  2. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, I don't write my fiction in first person, so that's not a problem for me. However, I do a lot of letter-writing and direct contact in first person, and you are SO right! The temptation to start every danged sentence with "I" is pretty much hotwired into me. I generally go back over the letter before I send it, and change as many of them as I can. But I still do it. Proud of myself here ...only one "I" beginning sentence. :)

    Nice to see you back, BTW. How is the writing going? Are you any further forward with either of your stories ...the one with the autistic boy, or the one with the city under siege?
     
  3. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, actually there are four leading "I"s, unless you count the grammatical cheat of putting one word before "I" to mask the fact that "I" is the subject of the sentence. :p

    As for the OP's question, the problem could be described as either the repetition of the word "I" or the amount of sentences where the first person is the subject.

    To treat it as an unfortunate challenge of writing in English (some languages allow the omission of the subject pronoun when the subject is clear in the context)? Or to treat it as a symptom of a self-centered narrative (if that is even a problem)?
     
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2015
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  4. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I definitely counted the grammatical cheat!!! :) I live by grammatical cheats. And "I" is a perfectly good word, I always say....

    I- I me- me I -I ego ego ego
     
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  5. lustrousonion
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    lustrousonion Contributing Member

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    As long as it isn't every single sentence beginning with I, I think you're good. As others have said, it's somewhat unavoidable in English. But here are some ideas to get around it:

    Put your time phrases at the beginning of the sentence. Use cleft sentences. Treat opinions/observations as fact--that cuts out all sensory verbs and the need for "I". Those are just a few things that come to mind.
     
  6. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    Well, the way I see it and write it, is that the I is always assumed.
    Any narrative can be pretty much empty of Is because every thought and action are always by the character.
    If you word it right, you would barely ever have to use it
     
  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the last two posts have key points.

    I could have gotten rid of the "I" in that sentence above by leaving the "I think" off, and in fiction, I would leave it off. I include it for courtesy in a forum post, but in a first person novel it's obvious that the narrator is the one thinking, or seeing, or wondering, or whatever. They're often called filter words, and sometimes they're needed, but often they can be done away with.

    Other than avoiding filtering? Accept that you're going to use the word more in first person than in other POVs, for sure. Vary your sentences to make sure you're not always starting with the word. That's about all I've got!
     
  8. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Move me out two paces from you, the POV character. You should be talking to me about what's going in the world around you. Try as much as you can not to report to me your individual actions themselves. In real life, a person does not have to detail their movements in stage direction. Don't give me stage direction unless it's important for me to know that you have lifted that arm and raised that leg. If you're saying to yourself, "that's always important otherwise how will the reader know where I'm moving, where I'm going?", you're wrong. If you had to consciously coordinate and choreograph every movement, every muscle, you would never get out of bed in the morning in real life.

    Also, don't over-report. The reader is not a dolt. ;) We understand things from other things. And if the reader is a dolt, too bad, over-reporting is not going to make him/her less of a dolt.

    In this sentence:

    You micromanage three verbs into my head. Why? What else does one do with books if not read them? Why do you give me that verb? How else would you highlight them if not by first taken them up into your hands? There is at least one verb too many in this sentence.

    Perhaps this sentence was constructed as a sort of literary conceit, but it's overflowing with blow-by-blow stage direction verbs. I'm focusing on all these verbs because a verb needs an actor (subject), and in a 1st person piece that actor is very likely to be the word "I". It's not a POV game. You don't need to move me through every movement of the controller. You don't have to verb me here and verb me there to make things happen. You can. And in some places you should, but it's not the only way to move my eye across the set and through the timeline of the story. The above quoted sentence would have completely satisfied with simply: How much is too much?

    Who else would create these breaks if not you? And the breaks clearly exist, else you would not be talking to me about them, so why the have done? That have done forces you to open a new clause with a new subject and you ("I") are the subject. I do create breaks describing detail or action of the situation and characters.

    If you (or anyone else) are now thinking, "Yes, yes, but this is just a silly forum post, not my writing," I suggest to you that you not think of forum posts, or any other writing for that matter, as a separate paradigm from your WIP. If you are noting a problem, noting it enough to ask about it here, then you need to take every opportunity to break yourself of the offending habit, and this place is as good a place as any. Many members seem to think that it's fine to have a non-writerly way of writing and speaking for day to day use and also a writerly way of writing and speaking and then wonder why they make so many mistakes or feel like their WIP is lacking. It's like saying, "I will use this precision tool to bang nails into wood for 90% of the day and then the other 10% of the day I expect this same precision tool to help me create world-class Swiss watch movements." Really? After you've used it aaaaaalllll day to bang nails into wood? Good luck with that. :whistle:
     
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  9. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    This reminds me of a tale told about the ancient Spartans, when another city came begging charity after their poor harvest.

    They gave a long, long speech about how much they needed the grain, how grateful they'd be, etc. The Spartans replied that they'd got bored and stopped listening.

    They gave another speech, shorter this time. And another, even shorter. Eventually, they held up a cloth bag and said "The bag needs grain."

    At this, the Spartans finally smiled in understanding. But they pointed out that their supplicants had no need to say "The bag".
     
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  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm not too conscious of my I's anymore. My trick was to make the character not conscious of herself/himself as a pronoun. I saw, I think, I heard, I felt.
    Instead of I heard a suspicious noise - I write - What the hell was that noise?
    Instead of I think Angel has been lying to me all this time - I write - That bitch Angel is a two-faced liar.
    Instead of I saw Michael slip the chocolate bar into his pocket. - I write - Michael slipped the chocolate bar into his pocket.
    Instead of I feel sick I think I'm going to barf - I write - My stomach is churning, spitting warning acid up my throat. I'm going to barf.
    The last one I mixed it up by exchanging I's for my's.

    There's no exact number of I's that I shoot for. I whittle them down to the point where I don't feel conscious of them interrupting the narrative and creating distance for the reader.
    Put yourself in the character's shoes.

    I saw Marjorie walk down the hall towards me. I think her new shoes are ugly. I watch her switch her backpack from one shoulder to another and I wonder why I chose such a girl with no fashion sense for a friend.

    Here's 3 sentences with five I's. How many would you normally eliminate?
     
  11. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Write like you talk and think, to a certain extent. I feel you wrote your OP very deliberately to demonstrate your weakness. No one speaks like that, so neither would the narrator in a novel.
     
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  12. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    Make the subject of the sentence the things you are observing. Instead of "I saw the person walk across the room" it is "The person walked across the room." Since it's first person, the reader already knows you are seeing it so you dont need to reiterate it all the time. Reserve the use of "I" for when the narrator truly is the subject - "I smiled when I saw the person walk across the room".
     
  13. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    See?? I keep telling people about Angel - bitch liar - finally someone agrees with me. ;)
     
  14. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I saw the work of a guy who tried to avoid too many I's just by removing them. His prose read like this:

    "Went down to the store. Bought some groceries. Came home and put them away. Washed the car and mowed the lawn. Had a nap." Etc.

    That gets VERY tiring VERY quickly. Sheesh. :)
     
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  15. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is so weird. In some languages, a series of sentences without subject pronouns is normal and even expected. I agree that it is tiring to read something like that in English, but it is hard to explain why. Maybe it is just because removal of pronouns coincides with the goal of writing concisely, and writing that tries too hard to be concise just becomes terse. That example is no less tiring to read when the pronouns are reintroduced:

    "I went down to the store. I bought some groceries. I came home and put them away. I washed the car and mowed the lawn. I had a nap."

    I see no reason to believe it is impossible to omit subject pronouns in English without interrupting the flow. Just difficult to avoid the ambiguity that pronouns (and verb conjugation in some languages) are designed to clarify.
     
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  16. Jordan J
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    Jordan J Member

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    All sound advice...
    It is a tricky problem that anyone writing in first person has to struggle with.
     
  17. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Funnier still is the fact that some languages that imbue their subject pronouns, object pronouns, and verbs with a high degree of information allow - and idiomatically almost demand - the elision of subject pronouns (Spanish, pro-drop), while others that impart the same degree of information to each of the aforementioned do not, as a rule, permit it (Russian, not pro-drop).
     
  18. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @Wreybies, what do you mean by "pro-drop"?
     
  19. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Languages like Spanish where the subject pronoun is typically not said are called pro-drop languages. Pronoun droping. The only time you really hear anyone use subject pronouns in Spanish is when there is a need to point out or emphasize the difference between one person and another, like in the following dialogue:

    "Are you going to call Carlo and tell him about the crash?"

    "Oh, no, no. I am not going to call him. You are going to call him. You crashed the car."

    Other than that, if a pronoun is the subject of a sentence, it simply doesn't get said. The verb already tells you exactly who is doing what. The funny thing is that Russian has a subject pronoun, verb, object pronoun dynamic where each of these words carry the exact same amount of information (and often more) than they do in Spanish, so you could conceivable drop the subject pronoun and the verb would tell you everything you need to know, but this is not permitted or idiomatic in Russian. Russians say their subject pronouns.

    Now, most languages permit some degree of pronoun dropping, like:

    "What are you doing?"

    "Going to the store"

    Context allows the pronoun in the response to go unsaid, but in English this is the exception, not the rule. As soon as the sentences become even a little bit more complex, the fact that verbs in English carry almost no information as to grammatical person means you get word salad, and very quickly, with no sense of who is doing what to whom. In Spanish you say the subject pronoun only when you're making a point.
     
  20. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's not the "I," that's the problem. It's the lackluster monotonous "stage direction" sentences that can be present in either 1st, 2nd or 3rd

    I/John went to the mall. I/he was hungry, so I/he went to the first fast food joint I/he could find. "I want a pint of blood," I/he said, because I/he was a cool, sexy vampire......
    .......and that's all you're going to get with this quality of writing!


    See? He/I are often interchangeable.


    Peachululu, above me, offered some great examples of how to eliminate I. But that could just as well refer to third or second person as well.
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2015
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  21. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    There are dozen's of examples that could have been cut within the posts above through simple changes to the descriptions of a personal thought or opinion. Or, even better, simply dropping off irrelevant turns of phrase. My opinion on the matter is that most uses of the word / letter are not necessary, but are instead lazy expressions of first person thought. You need to use it on occasion, sometimes often, to create a balanced work, but should always do your very best to avoid it. That way it is more effective. For example, considering these are my opinions from my perspective, my ability to avoid the use of the word while expressing a personal opinion demonstrates how it was at no point essential. However, my use of the word 'my' has now become just as mundane and repetitive. So perhaps a mixture would have worked best.
     
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  22. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm going to play with removing the I's from your post. But my brain doesn't seem to have the capacity to explain what I think I'm doing.

    Highlighting some books has helped me to judge a "normal" number of "I"s.

    But it's hard to know how much is too much. My writing usually has too many.

    Describing detail or action of the situation and characters sometimes helps.
     
  23. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    I think excessive use of "I" in first person is inherently more annoying than "He/She" in third person. In fact, its much more annoying in almost any context because of the narcissistic connotation, which is why I suggested making the subject different.

    For example, I could say, "I think the Beatles are a good band" or "The Beatles are a good band." They say the same thing but one is about me and my opinion while the other is about the Beatles. The same thing applies to writing first person. The reader already knows it its the narrator's point of view just as you know the second sentence is my opinion. But what do you want your audience to focus on - the narrator or the object/activity at hand?
     
  24. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's a qualification about "I think..." that isn't there in "The Beatles are..." - It's an opinion, whereas the second statement is an unequivocal fact.

    You could use either statement, depending on whether your narrator is unsure about the validity of his opinion, or whether he's an outspoken git.

    It all comes down to what you want/need to say.
     
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  25. Aled James Taylor
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    Aled James Taylor Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you use italics for thoughts, you don't have to write 'I thought' so many times.
     
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