Taking ‘I’ out of your writing

Your reader probably doesn’t care about you. That might be tough news to take, but it’s usually true. Before you use “I” even once in your writing, ask yourself why you’re important to the story (i.e., report, case study, news/feature article, etc.). In most cases, you’ll discover that you’re not as important as you believe yourself to be.

Image source: history.army.mil/art/Posters/WWI/I_want_you.jpg

Image source: history.army.mil/art/Posters/WWI/I_want_you.jpg

The story is seldom about you. If you think it’s about you, think again. And as you think, consider your format (a letter, an article, a white paper, an opinion piece). Think about the reader—your audience. Think about the core message or bit of news you want to convey to that reader. And think about the knowledge or the experience the reader might hope to glean from your writing.

Using “I,” “me,” “mine,” “my,” and “myself” makes sense in cover letters, resignation letters, self-evaluations, personal blogs, memoirs, and diaries—things that are about you. But in most forms of professional writing, taking “I” out of the equation opens up your writing more to your reader.

An I-free piece typically delivers the message more clearly, more powerfully, and more authoritatively than a piece in which the writer references himself. And good writers know this. Good writers seek to transport the reader deep into the process, place, situation, problem, plan, or scenario that they’re describing. Good writers want the reader to imagine himself as a firsthand observer—not as a sidekick to the writer or as a secondhand observer looking over the writer’s shoulder. Good writers usually want the reader to forget about the writer.

When you use “I” in your writing, you fail to put the reader into your shoes. Instead, you force the reader to witness you walking in your own shoes. The approach effectively shifts attention away from important primary information and toward the person relaying the information—and toward that person’s information-gathering process.

When a writer uses “I” within the body of an article, she foments questions for the reader. (Who is the writer? Where did this person come from? Is this person integral to the rest of the article? What does the writer look like? What is the writer’s background? Do I like the writer?) These are questions that you, the writer, might not answer for the reader, and these are questions that distract the reader from the heart of the story. (Note: If you must describe your credentials or expertise, a brief bio statement before or after the body of an article usually will suffice for the reader.)

The other thing about using “I” in your writing is that it can make you sound less like an authority and more like a grade-schooler delivering a report about your field trip. Consider an I-heavy sentence like this one. …

“When I walked through the doors of the exhibit, I found myself transported millions of years into the past, to an age when giant reptiles trudged through muggy forests, and I could easily imagine these creatures seeking an easy meal— or seeking not to become one.”

But with a bit of rewording and the slicing away of “I” and its supporting phrases, the sentence becomes crisp, direct, and easy for a reader to absorb—less about the writer and more about the subject matter. …

“The exhibit transports visitors millions of years into the past, to an age when giant reptiles trudged through muggy forests, seeking an easy meal— or seeking not to become one.”

So what should you do to avoid I-centric writing?

– During your revision process, take out “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.” Rewrite. Revise. Rethink. This is the challenging part of writing—correcting the first words that you might have spewed impulsively onto the page; looking harshly at your first draft; recrafting sentences to deliver information more efficiently or to advance the story.

– Watch out for verbs that project your emotional process or thought process into your writing. Examples might include “think,” “believe,” “feel,” “sense,” and “want.”

– As you write, try not to think the way you think when you’re looking for lost car keys—in that linear “what I did” fashion. (“I walked in the door. I put my purse down on the couch. I went to the kitchen. I opened the fridge. I got out a snack. The phone rang. I went to answer it. …”) Don’t simply retell your actions. Don’t make yourself the central figure in some boring play-by-play story that, though very relatable for you, fails to distill and deliver clear information for the reader.

– Check your ego and your love for yourself at the door. Humble thyself. You can reveal yourself as a clever writer without inserting yourself into your writing. If your topic is interesting and relevant to the reader, there’s no need to make yourself sound interesting. So there’s little to no need to sprinkle “I” throughout your writing. And there’s no need to stroke your own ego by pointing to yourself within your writing. Readers will recognize it as bragging, though you might view it as cleverness.

– Step outside of yourself. Seek an almost out-of-body writing experience, in which you observe, describe, and report on activities, events, milestones, processes, and people—as more third-person narrator than central character. The approach lends authority to your voice and builds respect with the reader.

Note: Writers of fiction can ignore a good chunk of this “I” guidance. The convention of sometimes using a first-person narrator (an actual character, not the writer) makes ditching “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself” impossible. (“He said to call him Ishmael”?) Then again, in some cases fiction writers probably could improve their tales by using a third-person narrator instead of a first-person narrator—to avoid creating a dull and thinly veiled proxy for the author instead of a full-fledged character.

If indeed what you’re writing is about you, you still should endeavor to use “I” and related first-person forms judiciously. A piece about your private struggles, interesting adventures, individual perspectives, or personal processes doesn’t have to be saturated with “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.”

And you’ll find that even in many traditionally I-centric forms of writing—letters of accolade, testimonials, or personal opinion pieces, for example—reducing the “I” factor can result in stronger writing that places the focus on the reader or your subject rather than you.

So “I want to thank the team members for all their hard work” becomes “The team members deserve great thanks for all their hard work.”

“I felt like a true professional when I cleaned my carpets with the VacuumTron 6000” becomes “Cleaning carpets with the VacuumTron 6000 makes the user feel like a true professional.”

And “I believe that dogs should be allowed to marry cats” becomes simply but solidly “Dogs should be allowed to marry cats.” (If your reader—thanks to a headline or a page header—already knows that he’s reading an opinion piece, there’s generally no need for you to water down your message with “I believe.” The “should” also helps make things clear for the reader.)

Removing “I” and its related forms might not always be easy. Sometimes an “I” simply can’t be expunged from your writing. But do your best to wipe it away and see how much stronger and clearer your writing becomes.

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, lstillett.wordpress.com. All rights reserved.

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