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Beyond Me, Myself, and I: Four Ideas for Escaping the First-Person Bubble

Even when writing about yourself, there’s room for other voices in your prose.

Blogging, by definition, requires an individual voice and an individual perspective from which to share your take on the world. It’s that specificity that makes personal reactions to current events — like, say, the passing of David Bowie — that much more interesting than a dry news account, however well sourced.

As writers, we embrace this liberty to be ourselves, (rhetorical) warts and wrinkles included. But we also run the risk of turning a personal perspective into a myopic one. The difference often lies not so much in what we write, but in how we write it. If you ever worry about appearing narcissistic and self-involved on your blog, don’t change the topics you write about — change the mechanics of discussing them. Here are a few ideas.

Control the beginning of your sentences

You might be talking about your charity work, expressing your admiration of another writer, or remembering how small and insignificant you felt upon visiting the Great Wall of China. It doesn’t matter: if every single sentence you write (or even every paragraph) begins with an “I,” your readers will likely conclude that it’s all about you, and grammar will be on their side.

One notable exception is when you use a repeated “I” for rhetorical effect — no editor would ever touch “I came; I saw; I conquered,” and not just because it was Julius Caesar who came up with it.

It’s inevitable, of course, that some sentences would begin with a first-person pronoun. Which is why you should always try to save these for when you really need them. You’ll gain not just a less self-centered narrative, but also a less monotonous one: few things lull readers into boredom more efficiently than a long series of “I did this, then this, and I think that about this, and I believe this about that.”

Experiment with being a Jimmy

If you’re of a certain age — or of a rudimentary level of appreciation for 90s culture — you will have crossed paths with episode 105 of Seinfeld, a.k.a. “The Jimmy.” The character from the title is notable for one thing: he keeps talking about himself in the third person (“Jimmy’s got a compound fracture! Jimmy’s going into shock!”). He’s hilarious, but also the most annoying person in an episode full of awful misanthropes.

So it might come as a surprise if I encourage you to experiment with writing about yourself… in the third person (there’s a term for it: illeism). You don’t have to use your name all the time — or at all — like poor Jimmy; a pronoun works just fine. The idea is to treat yourself like an omniscient narrator would treat a fictional character: the distancing effect is not only intriguing for the reader (who may or may not realize at first who it is you’re writing about), it also allows you to say a lot more about yourself without sounding too self-absorbed.

Quote other people

In a piece that focuses on your own take on things — which describes roughly 87.2 percent of blog posts — you can earn a pocketful of first-person credits by borrowing the voices of others and injecting them into your prose. It’s not just the variety that will make your writing more appealing; it’s also the inherent generosity of making room for someone else, of stepping out of the spotlight, however momentarily.

One easy — and satisfying — way of making your post more polyphonic is by introducing snippets of dialog. Blogger Emily E. Hogstad did just that in a moving post about music and her mother’s death. It’s a very personal piece clearly anchored in Emily’s experience of her mother’s illness and passing, but it never feels hermetic, as it’s full of other speaking, feeling characters:

“Take this one,” I said, sitting on the bed next to her and pointing to her open palm where I had set the pill.

“Which one?”

“That one,” I said, and I pointed again.

“But there’s two,” she said, and the implication of what she’d just said made me nauseous.

“Something’s wrong,” my aunt finally said, and although I was having a hard time admitting it, she was right.

These moments can take many other shapes: you might quote a line or a paragraph from a post by another blogger, or from an article or book you recently read. Consider embedding a video that contains a song, a speech, or a movie scene that relates to the topic at hand. Or mention — and link to — a comment someone left you on another post. Done well, you won’t be receding out of view at all; your personality and perspective will simply manifest themselves obliquely, through your choices and your tastes.

Open-letter all the things

Actually, don’t. A well-executed open letter can be fun and engaging, but it’s also become a bit of an overused trope. The reason for the form’s popularity, however, has nothing to do with its letter-ness (how many bloggers who penned one had recently sent an actual letter?) and everything to do with its direct, second-person appeal. And nothing stops you from using the second person in any post, regardless of its genre or format.

Mix in a paragraph written in the second person between a couple of first-person ones, and you’ll get a change of rhythm and a refreshing dose of urgency and immediacy in your writing. Lily Zacharias deployed this technique in a recent post criticizing the use of the adjective “humbled” on social media — and her already-sharp post really came together when she turned heavily to the second person in the final half.

No matter who the subject of those sentences happens to be — the President? Your mom? Yorick’s skull? — your readers always put themselves, however subtly (or even subconsciously), in the position of the person you’re addressing. Which means their ears will likely be more attentive than if you’d just go on with “me me me.”

Do you ever get frustrated writing in the first person — or reading prose written that way? Do you worry about focusing too much about yourself in your blogs? Share your thoughts in the comments (yes, the first person is more than appropriate here!).

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  1. Very thought provoking ideas, I have been trying to use more quotes, but I do lean heavily on me. And considering my subject matter is usual me in a very personal way I will have to consider where to take this.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’m guilty (just went back and counted some of the I’s in my posts) but since I an explaining some of the processes used in making my crafts, I’m not sure if it can be avoided. Any suggestions?
    I heavy: http://mulchandmorecrafts.com/2016/01/12/another-hat-on-my-needles/
    Not quite as many I’s (at least in the beginning): http://mulchandmorecrafts.com/2016/01/06/wondering-wednesday-8-dryer-balls/
    Thanks for any opinions.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This may or may not work depending on the specific context of your explanations, but I think that aiming for a more chatty tone generally helps, since in conversations we rarely start with “I” as often as in writing — in other words, playing with word order (as someone also suggested in another comment below) can do wonders, for example — instead of:

      I may even make some finger-less gloves if there’s still yarn left!

      How about:

      If there’s still some yarn left, I may even make some finger-less gloves

      The “I” is still there, but it feels less prominent in its new position, wouldn’t you say?

      Liked by 5 people

    2. I hear ya! It is very hard to get beyond me and I. My blog is primarily about my travels. I am trying to write about the location and what I’m seeing rather than my personal experience… same thing!

      I think you did admirably. You focused on the dryer balls and how to use them, etc., and managed to avoid “I” for quite a bit of it.

      Thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Until lately, I was using too much of first person.

    An editor, from whom I sought writing advice pointed this to me: “try starting sentence and paragraphs with a word other than ‘i’. You can use it sometimes, but not every time. This can be difficult. It’s extra difficult to do it without lapsing into too many adverbs and other grammatical oddities. Get that right and you’re halfway home on writing like a pro.”

    But he did not tell me how. This post does. So thank you so much. I can’t say I got over this but at least now I am aware when I am using too many I’s.

    Liked by 11 people

  4. Thank you for this superb post, Ben. Avoiding “i-itis” is a question that has long vexed us at the HeatherBlog world headquarters, and you’ve offered lots of creative and workable alternatives. Bravo!

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Sometimes, my use of third person loses my tone as a writer. I mostly write through reading other insights then pondering it on my own. In other words, I short of personal take about topics I am interested in. That makes me more a reporter not a writer. I hope to improve in this.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. When you write, not pretending to be ‘a writer’ but just because writing is aomething you need to for one of the many reasons it may occur, you are expressing your inspiring dramas, your thoughts or your actual felinos about a situation that might occured or might be invented and you are not supposed to remember all those good advices of yours. A ‘writer’ may succede or not but only if he is working to make money or to attain his twenty minutos of glory – what is happenning nowadays and is becoming terrifying fot those who want to read something interesting and thoughfull, even if you do not agree wth any of the images or thoughts in the text. Writiimg, though it can act as a medecine, cannot be submitred to those rudes of yours! If you see writing as an opportunity for business you are rigth. It results, perhaps, from the studies on the marketing but it hás nothing to do with real literature but with merchandising. Sorry….

    Liked by 4 people

  7. First thing I did was to check the blog I just posted to see if I started it with I! Very good points Ben. You reminded me that I used quotes much more when I first started blogging. Will revisit that. Thanks!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Very helpful, I’ll 🙂 experiment with these variations. Checking my posts, I see that it’s pretty haphazard, I see-saw between impersonal paragraphs and am surprised to see many that do start with “I” after all. Thanks!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. One of the tricks I use is simply changing the word order of a sentence. So instead of “I went shopping yesterday”, I´ll write “Yesterday I went shopping.”
    Or I might just add a few extra words, turning sentence like “I´ve had my doubts about…” into something like “Lately I´ve had some doubts about…”
    Another trick is using passive sentences instead of active ones, for example changing “I don´t really believe…” into “It is rather difficult to believe…”

    Liked by 6 people

  10. Since im new to blogging. Everytime i start to write. I hear my english teacher screaming at me. Do not start your sentences with “I”. So this sonething i pay attention to. But like alot of others, it can be hard. Thank you for your post.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Writing in the first person has been frustrating for me as a blogger. It conflicts with my academic leanings. I also become concerned about my blog feeling like a diary or journal. When I find myself stuck, I post poetry. I will try some of the tips you have outlined in the article. Thanks!

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Great insights here! Ironically I just put a post up where I pretended my blog was hijacked (yes, you guessed it – – it’s really still me writing the hijacking) but it gave me tons of freedom. So that’s my tip – – kidnap yourself and write the next post as one of your family members would write it!

    Liked by 6 people

  13. I especially like the use of a Jimmy. For several years now, we have been blogging using alter egos (our version of Jimmys) in our travel blogs. “They” are so much more open in their writing, so innocent, so easily impressed. We would never be able to say what they say. It’s nice to have our approach “validated.” Thank you.

    Liked by 4 people