A narrative skill that separates gifted media writers from the less gifted is the ability to stay out of the story. Obviously, some writers have the latitude to write first-person and are thus often front and center — columnists and critics, for example, and opinion, analysis and travel writers.
But even there, polished and readable writers usually spotlight their subjects rather than themselves. They prefer to stay offstage, in control but pulling the strings out of sight. They know that — as in speaking — me, myself and I writing can be intrusive and tiresome.
Unfortunately, writers with first-person leeway sometimes latch onto an egocentric writing style as boorish as it is misguided. They’re admonished to tell stories, “get people in,” humanize. But too often the stories they tell and the humanity they reveal is their own. That may be OK as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Such writers also may intrude because they assume they should, given their purpose, venue or subject. They may suppose such phrasing as I think, I believe, I asked or I saw strengthens their work — when, in fact, unadorned assertion is stronger.
Or maybe they simply haven’t considered a more creative, gracious or convincing way to write.
It’s true that first-person accounts can be both memorable and affecting. But those are exceptional accounts of exceptional events or people that teach something about the human condition and the universality of human experience. Such accounts are both welcome and enriching. But when the writer is in no way the subject and still appears in the story, the reader wants to say: You again?
How do we kick the me, myself and I habit?
• Limit personal pronouns.
• Focus on the subject (or others) rather than on ourselves.
• Include the readers.
• Realize that unnecessary intrusion is nothing more than weak writing.
• Remember that staying out is more assertive and authoritative, not less.
The following writer depends heavily upon first-person pronouns. He refers to himself six times in two short sentences — I, me, I, I, me, I:
“I thought the small, dense works so different from the large airy ones greeting me in the foyer that I found it hard to believe they were from the same painter. When I mentioned it, he told me I was right — that he was in a very real sense different people when he created them.”
How could that writer have highlighted his subjects rather than himself? By focusing on artist and art:
“The small, dense canvases were so different from the large, airy ones in the gallery that they seemed the work of different painters. Yes, agreed the artist — he was different people when he created them.”
How do we stay out and still stay personal? It’s neither difficult nor a mystery, but here’s a writer who doesn’t do it: “During my visit to Brussels, I rented a car for a side trip over the hump-backed bridges of Bruges, and I was glad I did.”
Some editors discourage the use of second-person pronouns, and it’s a big mistake. You is not only personal, but it also has the added virtue of putting the readers onstage: “If you visit Brussels, consider renting a car for a side trip over the hump-backed bridges of Bruges. You’ll be glad you did.”
“You” allows the writer to stay out of the story but still to make the same points. In the following excerpt from “The Best American Travel Writing 2000,” P.J. O’Rourke doesn’t write that everything in India confused him or that he found getting dressed difficult. Instead he lets the readers experience that:
“Everything in India seems to be a brain-teaser. Just getting dressed is a riddle. This is how you put on a sari: Take a piece of cloth four feet wide and twenty-five feet long and tuck one corner into your underpants …”
The passage continues with a long and hilarious description of what you must do to don a sari.
The following, from an editorial, would be stronger without the writer’s presence: “Given the facts, it seems perfectly clear to us that the administration’s attempt to regulate Wall Street is as vital as healthcare reform.”
The phrasing “seems perfectly clear to us” is unnecessarily qualified and invites argument. Since the editorial presented indisputable fact, an unblinking assertion would be both warranted and more authoritative: “Given the facts, it’s clear that the administration’s attempt to regulate Wall Street is as vital as healthcare reform.”
The ability to stay out — always elegant and modest — has become an even rarer commodity now that blogging and social media have clogged the Web with a virtual “Song of Myself.” If you write first-person, that’s another good reason to practice artistic restraint — there’s so little of it these days. A mere trace will raise your work above the crowd’s.
Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org