The treacherous First Person

I’ve been meaning to share a tidbit of a conversation I recently had with my colleague at The Economist, Tom Standage, while we were having lunch at Zuni in San Francisco. Both of us are writing books, both of which are not traditional “histories” but have a strong element of history, and indeed assume a reader intellectually curious about history and open to seeing its timeless legacies in the world around us today. Tom’s is about food throughout history and to our own day. Mine is about life, specifically success and failure, throughout history and to our own day.

The interesting tidbit for writers, however, was our spontaneous and passionate agreement on a matter of literary fashion: the First Person. We were not entirely against it, but extremely skeptical.

American publishers tend to push writers into “personalizing” their non-fiction stories. Journalists, especially columnists, are increasingly doing the same thing. Personalizing can indeed be a good thing, in the sense that good stories need characters, and writers need to present them colorfully. The problem is that “I” tends to be the wrong character to put into the story.

If you are writing a book about an earth-shattering event, conspiracy, cover-up, war, disease or what have you, and you were genuinely a protagonist in that story, by all means, personalize away. Tell us what happened to you. That is the story.

But if you’re just telling a good story, and then looking for ways to use the word I, please stop. Why do we have entire paragraphs in The Atlantic (otherwise one of my favorite magazines) whose sole purpose is to say that so-and-so “told me” such-and-such, which was probably utterly banal? Well, because the writer wants to prove to us that he was there, you see. At The Economist, we believe that readers already assume that we were there and, besides, don’t much care either way, because they just want a cracking good story or analysis. So by I-ing and me-ing, you’re really just getting in the way of the story. You’re turning sophisticated readers off.

Once you try writing without the First Person, you may find it surprisingly difficult. Which is why it is such excellent discipline! Without the I, you can’t fake it. You can’t give us the three-paragraph “color” opening about how “I was walking into his office on a sunny March day” and so forth. You actually have to deliver a detail or observation that is telling. Much harder to do!

So I kept telling my students at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to try leaving the First Person out. They kept ignoring me. Through blogs and email and all those columns, it has seeped into our writing culture. It’s just so much easier.

The result is reams and reams of writing that is narcissistic. I could highlight one or two high-profile books and articles, but I know better. (Also, I admit that some of them do become best-sellers, which may be why publishers push the First Person so hard.) But next time you’re reading an I piece, try stripping out the First Person and seeing what content or substance is left. If a lot, good article. If not a lot, it was a narcissist.

But I did say that neither Tom nor I was* completely against the First Person. I’m using it in this blog, obviously. (Then again, a blog is by definition an ultra-personal medium.) And I’ve also, after agonizing about it, decided to use it in my book, which I am–yes–“personalizing.”

The challenge I see is to do this without being narcissistic and interrupting a cracking good story for the heck of it. In short, it is about finding an authentic voice or tone. That, of course, is true whether you’re using the First Person or not.

(*Bonus: did the was surprise you? Did you think it should be were? Nope, was is correct. More to come in future posts.)
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3 thoughts on “The treacherous First Person

  1. Bless this post. Readers who want the “I” perspective will pick up a memoir. And drawing from personal experience doesn’t mean writing in the first person.

    With the increasing validity of online media – a medium that is arguably more personal across the board (from blogs to casual language in advertising) – more and more news ends up being about the writer, rather than the topic. Yes, it’s easier and faster to write using, “I,” but just because the online medium allows for instant production (and increased demand – say, creating a piece for a print publication and an adjunct online feature) doesn’t mean the writers shouldn’t put time into their writing.

    In another vein, it’s interesting to be so conscious of not including “I” in this very blog post, where it may have actually been okay to do so. Hm.

  2. Great point, Beth. In fact, I’ve noticed that a lot of journalists feel added pressure now that they can (and thus are expected to) add video and audio to their text, which increases yet again the temptation to opt for a running memoir…

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