Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

I, I, I – Writing in First Person

It’s so easy when writing in first person to start too many sentences with “I” or a form of the word. A recent student had a whole page where every paragraph started with “I,” “I’ve,” or “I’m.” I suggested different methods of changing up sentences. These include adding time, rearranging, and removing “I” entirely. Let me show you with a simple one sentence example.

Instead of:
I added to the list in my notebook.

Mention time (or place) first:
All day I added to the list in my notebook.
Off and on throughout the morning, I added to the list in my notebook.
In my bedroom, I added to the list in my notebook.

Rearrange:
The list for what I need is saved in my notebook.

Remove I:
There’s this long list in my notebook.
We have this long list in my notebook.

Other options to cut the number of “I”s are to combine sentences, add a modifying phrase, or change a statement into a question.

Instead of:
I woke up when the dryer buzzed. I sat up and brushed hair out of my face.

Combine sentences:
When the driver buzzed, I woke up and brushed hair out of my face.

Add a modifying phrase:
The dryer buzzed. Waking up, I brushed hair out of my face.

Take from statement to question:

Instead of:
I knew he was coming here.
Ask:
Wasn’t he coming here?

Another way to cut the number of “I”s is to avoid, “I thought,” “I wondered.” Trust your reader to get it. In the opening of Hunger Games, Katniss has this thought about her sister: She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. It’s obvious from context without the words, “I thought.”

One of the big dangers of writing in first person is filtering or distancing the reader. Warnings of this problem are, “I saw,” “I heard,” “I watched,” “I noticed,” etc. Simply state what’s happening and the reader will assume the main character is seeing, hearing, observing, etc.

Instead of:
I watched the car turn off the main road onto a rutted gravel road.
Write:
The car turned off the main road onto a rutted gravel road.

In a similar manner, don’t state emotions with a simple “I,” such as “I felt.” In Wish by Barbara O’Connor, Charlie doesn’t say, I felt worried or I worried. Instead, she says, The worry clutching at my heart, told me my mama might never get her feet on the ground.

My final suggestion if you’re feeling as if you’re drowning in “I”s, is add someone else to the scene. As James Scott Bell says, “Don’t leave your lead character alone very long. Two or more characters, plus conflict, animate scenes.”

Perhaps you have other suggestions for caging wild “I”s—please post them in the comments.

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