Starting sentences with "I" in first-person POV; overusing certain words
Published: September 21, 2010
Q: I’m revising a first person story and I’m frustrated that so many sentences start with “I.” Some paragraphs have at least four sentences that begin that way. Some have even more. Is this just par for the course with a first person narrator or am I doing something wrong?
A: Sure, a first person narration is going to use “I” often and many of these uses will happen at the beginning of sentences. But you can overuse “I” to the point of monotony. Don’t get hung up on counting sentences, though. Some paragraphs will simply demand more sentences that begin with “I” and some less. Instead, focus on the flow of the story. In Edwidge Danticat’s short story “Night Women,” a woman prepares for her nighttime “suitor” while her young son sleeps:
I whisper my mountain stories in his ear, stories of the ghost women and the stars in their hair. I tell him of the deadly snakes lying at one end of a rainbow and the hat full of gold lying at the other end. I tell him that if I cross a stream of glass-clear hibiscus, I can make myself a goddess. I blow on his long eyelashes to see if he’s truly asleep. My fingers coil themselves into visions of birds on his nose. I want him to forget that we live in a place where nothing lasts. I know that sometimes he wonders why I take such painstaking care. Why I draw half-moons on my sweaty forehead and spread crimson powders on the rise of my cheeks. We put on his ruffled Sunday suit and I tell him that we are expecting a sweet angel and where angels tread the hosts must be as beautiful as floating hibiscus.
Six of the eight sentences start with “I” but the paragraph reads smoothly. In fact, this choice adds to the narrator’s voice. Other paragraphs in this story don’t have as many sentences that begin with “I” and some paragraphs have none.
If the narrative sounds off—and it’s bound to if you’re concerned about this—start revising. Look for moments where you can vary sentence structure. One unedited paragraph might look like this:
I had three dollars and fifty-one cents in my pocket. I dug out a cigarette while waiting for Jimmy. I thought he was taking too long. I noticed the sign above the diner. The “J” had burned out, so it just read “immy’s.” I smiled, thinking that it would tick off Jimmy even more if I said something about it.
By changing structure, the second sentence could easily read, “Waiting for Jimmy, I dug out a cigarette.”
You may also find that some sentences simply don’t need “I” and its accompanying verb. For example, “I thought he was taking to long,” could be shortened to, “He was taking too long.”
Also, look for sentences that could be combined or rearranged. For example, here are two sentences from the original paragraph:
I noticed the neon sign above the diner. The “J” had burned out, so it just read “immy’s.”
These could be combined into one sentence:
The “J” had burned out on the neon sign above the diner, so it just read “immy’s.”
Or they could be rearranged:
The neon sign above the diner read “immy’s.” The “J” had burned out.
Here’s a revised version of the whole paragraph:
I had three dollars and fifty-one cents in my pocket. Waiting for Jimmy, I dug out a cigarette. He was taking too long. The neon sign above the diner read “immy’s.” The “J” had burnt out. It would tick off Jimmy even more if I said something about it.
Make sure you’re not just upending sentence structure and order for the sake of it. Some changes can actually sound worse. Always keep the overall flow of the paragraph in mind.
Q: I have a tendency to overuse the word “seem.” I catch a lot of these uses in revision, but I often need an outside reader to help, too. How can I curb this tendency?
A: Use your word processing program’s tools. The search function can help you pinpoint and highlight each use of the problematic word. Read through the work paying particular attention to which uses are necessary and which are not. Highlighting also gives you a visual impression of just how often the word appears and a more objective view of its frequency.
When you’re composing something new, try to be aware of the overused word. If you keep it in mind as you write, you may find you reach to more inventive word choices or sentence structures in order to avoid it. Still, don’t worry too much about this as you write your initial drafts. You don’t want to welcome the internal editor into the process too early.
If you write early drafts by hand first and then move to the computer, you might find it helpful to somehow “flag” uses of the word so that transition from page to computer is part of the editing process. In Microsoft Word, for example, you could use the auto text function, which suggests the complete word when it recognizes the first few letters of it. To “flag” uses of “seem,” add something like this to auto texts list: “seemsREALLY?” Whenever you begin to write the word “seem” this option will pop up. It’s meant to suggest that you use this longer word, but, of course, you’re just using it to remind yourself to go easy on it.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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