Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Use "I" Too Much?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

I received an email with this question and thought it might make a good blog post.

I need help getting rid of my "I"s. I say them too much in my writing. Do you have any tips how I can fix that?

When you're writing in first person, you will use "I" a lot, just as third person authors will often use "he" or "she." There's no way to avoid it. But if you've noticed that every sentences starts with "I," and you're desperate to change that but don't know how, here are some things to try.

1. Remember, it takes time and practice to perfect any writing. Patience and hard work will get you there.

Example of "all my sentences start with 'I'":

       I walked to the store on Saturday morning to buy doughnuts for the meeting. I was both excited and worried that they'd chosen to come to my house for the meeting today. I hoped that they would like my house, that they wouldn't notice how old and run-down it was. I spent all day cleaning yesterday. I would be really upset if anyone said anything about the ratty carpet or the stained toilet that was constantly filling with water. I hoped no one would have need of the bathroom at all during the meeting.

2. Read a lot of first person books and study their sentence and paragraph structure. Go to the library and flip through some books to find some that are somewhat similar in style to your book. Then go back to your book and see which sentences and paragraphs can be rewritten or rearranged to give variation and create a better rhythm.

Example of varying sentence structure:

       I walked to the store on Saturday morning to buy doughnuts. The leaders had chosen my house for today's meeting, and I was both excited and worried. Would they like my house? Would they notice how old and run-down it was? In an effort to ease my worries, I cleaned all day yesterday. If anyone said anything about the ratty carpet or the stained toilet that was constantly filling with water ... I don't know what I'd do. Maybe no one would have need of the bathroom during the meeting.

3. Add narrative (put everything in your main character's voice) to break up that list of "this, this, and this happened."

       I walked to the store on Saturday morning to buy doughnuts for the meeting. Why did they pick my house? Why? I wanted to believe that they were just being fair and that it was my turn. But the smirk on Adam Bentley's face when he'd announced today's meeting place didn't sit well with me. What if this was payback? His way of exposing me the way I'd exposed him when I ratted him out last year.
       But maybe not. Maybe I was simply paranoid. Either way, I'd cleaned all day yesterday. If anyone said anything about the ratty carpet or the stained toilet that was constantly filling with water ... I don't know what I'd do, especially if it was Adam. Punching our group leader probably would be a bad move.
       I forced Adam's face out of my mind. Perhaps the doughnuts would be so delicious that they'd distract everyone from the state of my home. And if I didn't buy any milk to go with the doughnuts, maybe, just maybe, no one would have need of the bathroom during the meeting.

See how much more we get with that last example? We learn more about what is happening, we see conflict, we feel our POV character's worry and it makes sense. We get his motivation for the scene now. We understand.

At a certain point, you won't need to put in as much effort "studying" how to do this. You will have learned, and the revising will come naturally. Keep in mind, this type of revising often adds words. This is great if your book is too short, but if your book is already long, be careful.

Here is a little blurb from one of my Spencer books (Chokepoint). See how Spencer gives us action, description, and narrative all in his own voice. (Also, in case you didn't know, Spencer is six foot four.)

       Jake drove a 2002 Ford Ranger. Two door. It didn’t even have suicide doors. When he told me to get in the back, I just stood there holding the flower box, staring.
       He couldn’t be serious.
       Oh, but he was. He ran around to the passenger’s door and opened it so his date, Chrystal Figueroa, could get out. Jake was wearing a red bowtie to match Chrystal’s red dress.
       “Jake,” Chrystal said, “I don’t mind getting in back. Really.”
       “Not to worry, girl,” Jake said, folding back her seat. “Spencer is a gentleman, aren’t you, Spencer?”
       “Sure.” I just didn’t know if I could fold myself up like a newspaper.
       Two little jump seats folded down behind the front bucket seats. Katie already sat tucked behind Jake’s seat, looking like a candy bar. Her dress was silver and shiny, and she’d piled her hair in a mountain on her head.
       “Here.” I reached in and handed her the flower box.
       “Thanks,” she said.
       I stretched my left leg inside first, then dove in. My back scraped against the roof, and I curled my spine as much as possible. I reached back to make sure the seat was folded down, and sank onto it. It felt like I was sitting on a spool of thread.
       “See, no problem,” Jake said, pushing Chrystal’s seat back into position. It hit my shoulder and knocked me against the back wall of the cab. I pulled my feet in as much as possible, hoping I wasn’t stepping on Katie’s.
       She giggled. “Like the ride?”
       “I thought clown cars were bigger on the inside.”
       “Don’t knock my wheels,” Jake said, glancing at me in the rearview mirror.
       “Thanks for the corsage.” Katie had opened the box and put the thing on her wrist. It was bigger than her hand.
       “Nice dress,” I said, which was a total lie. I would have preferred her basketball uniform over this. This normally cute girl looked like a robot dressed in aluminum ruffles.

Do you have any other ways that you get rid of "I?" Share your secrets in the comments.


  1. My WIP is in 1st person, so I've been struggling with how to do this. To get rid of I, I occasionally have the character talk to herself, saying things like, "What were you thinking?" or "Good job, Sadie," usually sarcastically. It helps get rid of some of the Is and demonstrates more of her voice. This post is extremely helpful! Thank you! (And I love Spencer and his way of looking at life!)

    1. That's great, Anna. That works really well.

  2. To go off of what Anna said about thoughts (which I totally agree with), you really don't say, "I think this," in your thoughts. For example, instead of having your character think, "I shouldn't have done that", they could think instead, "Shouldn't have done that" or, "That was brilliant." Also, pay attention to how you talk and think in real life; it's not like your life is normally told in third person.
    Thanks for the post! I'm not currently working on a first person narrative, but if I go back to one, it will be really helpful.

  3. My new project is also in 1st person. I love the 1st person present POV. It's always been my favorite because I'm the storyteller in the family and it basically lets me write it more like I would say it. I definitely have to watch the "I's" because it's very easy for me to slip into the boring "I... I... I..." trap. Great post and perfect timing! :)

    Writing Question: How hard is it to publish a book based on Christian principles under a secular genre? I guess "genre" is the word I'm looking for. I'm just asking because I know some people (particularly teens and college students) get turned off when they flip a book over and see "religious/fiction" down there by the bar code and I don't want that to happen should I ever get published. I'm definitely a Christian writer, but my writing isn't preachy or anything. I believe that a good writer should be able to weave in the principles so it's not like "Hey! Got JESUS?" smacking them in the face. Do you get what I'm saying? :/

    1. I love the first-person present POV too! Definitely the most exciting, both for the writer and the reader. My WIP is also another genre but with a Christian MC and principles. I get what you mean with the weaving and non-preachiness ("Hey, got JESUS?" -- cracked me up!), as a matter of fact my MC only talks about God on about two occasions but she believes in the ethics...I'm going off on a tangent. I'm pretty sure you can probably still publish under a regular house with a regular genre. I guess it just depends on how big a theme religion is in your novel. Good luck and yay for first-person present tense buddies!! :)

    2. It's not an easy thing if you are writing about Christian characters. Much of the general market will not like it. It really depends on what "principles" you put in the story and how you put them in. Here are some posts you might find helpful from agent Chip MacGregor's blog:

      Difference between CBA and the General Market: http://www.chipmacgregor.com/blog/current-affairs/what-are-the-differences-between-cba-and-the-general-market/

      Is crossover possible: http://www.chipmacgregor.com/blog/current-affairs/is-crossing-over-from-cba-to-the-general-market-possible/

      And what is values fiction: http://www.chipmacgregor.com/blog/the-writing-craft/what-is-values-fiction/

  4. I have a doughnut craving now . . .

    On a more serious note, great post! I notice this often in paragraphs of mine, and sit around forever re-wording stuff, *sigh*. Love the Spencer extract. We need more YA books with male protagonists.

  5. I know the problem! And the 'solutions' you gave are sort of the same as I did already. Feels goed ;-)

    Btw: I just finished the first chapter of the GTW-book and it's so great! Thanks for writing it!

    1. Good job, Arende! Sounds like you are on the right track!

      And, thank you. I'm glad it's helpful. :-)

  6. I had to read this twice because I got distracted by the doughnut picture the first time. :)

    This is PERFECT!! I really need to go back and just do a whole edit just to fix this. Some parts of my story are okay, but a lot of times (like when I have more intense scene I'm focusing on) I'll forget.

    1. Perhaps eating a doughnut while you edit will help. LOL

  7. I tend to write in first person and get really annoyed that I can't think of anything but "I" sentence starters sometimes. This was a great post! :)

    1. Thanks, Alyson! I usually can't think of much either on my first draft. I'm so glad we get to rewrite!

  8. I've had this issue as well. Thank you for choosing this topic.

  9. Thinking about writing a story in first person, this looks useful to refer. Personally, I prefer third person over first; I find it more intriguing.

    1. I've done both. And it was fun to do first after having written many third person books. It was a nice change. I think that I actually like first person better since it allows me to get so much deeper. But I imagine that I'll write more third person since I like to write multiple points of view and feel they work best (for me) in third person.

  10. Hi Jill,
    I had some trouble with using 'I' too much in my (now published) novel, Heart's Fire. I would differ my sentence structure (when I thought I had too many 'I's) with a little strategy called 'I fix' I made up. They are just numbers such as '1 2 1'. '1' is starting a sentence/paragraph with 'I' and '2' is starting without.
    So if a paragraph sounded horrid with too many 'I's, or something like that, I'd go for strategy '1 2 1' or '2 2 1' or maybe even '2 1 2'.
    Thought you might be interested. (If it made any sense). :D

    1. LOL! Nice idea, Ada. I'm glad it helped you on your rewrite!