How NOT to Write: Use of the First Person–“Look Ma! No Brains!”

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

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 First person–you either love it or you hate it.  That seems to be true no matter where you find it.  It can be incredibly effective, laughably narcissistic, or some strange combination of the two.  It is a literary sin (in formal prose) that I have been encountering more and more of late in my classes.  While there are certainly places in fiction for the first person, it really serves no particular purpose in academic writing.*  Even in fiction, its use is fraught with more danger than you might think.  Nothing says “Look at me!” to worse effect than using it.

The problem with first person (“I think…”, “In my opinion…”) in general is that it adds nothing to what we are saying.  The only reason that we use it is to assume ownership of something–an idea, a statement, a bit of research, etc.  It serves no purpose in my formal prose (or yours) for a simple reason:  my name is on the front of the freaking paperOf course the ideas belong to me, and everyone will already know that unless I tell them differently through the use of another author’s name, quotation marks, and references.  So, by using the first person to doubly mention that this really  is my idea/wording/etc. I’m not telling any reasonable reader something that he or she doesn’t already know.  In fact, in a very real way, I’m treating him or her like an infant.

I say the use of first person is fraught with peril because what it often does communicate isn’t particularly positive.  Constantly referencing ourselves in an academic paper makes it appear as if we think the things we put down are important simply because we thought them!  It takes the focus off the argument and puts it on the author.  That kind of self-centered vibe rubs many people the wrong way, myself included.  Also, there are still a number of the old school editors and professors out there who react very negatively to its use.

Then there is a conceptual issue to think of:  In good academic writing, nothing is “proved” simply because a particular person says it.  Its truth is demonstrated by the evidence we have assembled.  It would be no more (or less) true if someone else said it first.  In that sense, I, as the author, am completely superfluous to the basic veracity of the point.  If that is so, why insert myself into the situation at all?

So, nothing to gain, plenty to lose.  I can think of no good reason for using it in formal, academic writing.  Use of the first person in formal writing is generally a mark of weaker writing styles and/or bigger egos.

How best to avoid it?  I tell my students that part is simple–just argue your case and let your evidence do the work.  Most of us, when we’re talking to a friend, a teacher, a professor, making a speech, etc. don’t feel the need to constantly remind our audience that it really is us talking.  We just state things as we see them, and move on.

Obviously, much of that doesn’t apply in fiction.  There is very much a niche for first person there–even if it is still a subject that evokes strong emotions.  Note though that most often the first person is not used to point to the author.  It usually refers to a character.  The first person allows the author–and therefore the readers–to see the story directly through a characters eyes and to therefore develop their personalites to a deeper degree.  The Hunger Games or The Desden Files are popular examples of this approach.

I think the underlying principle is the same in both cases:  The author needs to get out of the way and let the story/evidence speak for itself.  Very few of us read an author because of who that author is–for their personal tastes, political beliefs, etc.  We read particular authors because we are looking to hear more of the same stories and characters they create.  The same is true of music and musicians.  I don’t listen to Bruce Hornsby or Loreena McKinnett because I know and love them as individuals.  I don’t know either one of them at all and I probably never will.  I love their music and I can appreciate it quite apart from who they are.

The elephant in the room I have so far ignored is when the author becomes a character in the book itself.  (Even here, though, it often isn’t the real author, but a characterization of some kind or other.) Done well, that is an excellent way to insert yourself (or a semblance of yourself) into the book without getting in the way.  Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a prime example of this.

Consistency is what matters, I think, with the first person, in academia and in fiction.  Consistently avoid it in the former, and consistently apply it, if you want to use it, in the latter.  In either case, take care.

Next Week:  The most important point of view–the reader’s!

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*And before anyone decides to mention it, first person in narratives like this is just fine.  I’m blogging, and therefore my personality will show through.  It’s all about context and audience!  🙂

More in the How NOT to Write series:

How NOT to Write: Don’t have a point!

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

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Remember a time  when you invested in something only to find that it was pointless?  You feel cheated.  You wish that there was some way to get those minutes (or hours) back and spend them on something else.  This feeling gets stronger the older you get, the more you begin to realize how precious and irretrievable each moment is.  I could have spent that time with my family, writing, exercising, working outside, or just resting! I encounter that feeling all too often:  when I’m grading papers without a thesis or even rudimentary organization.  (Of course for me, all is not lost.  Perhaps my time is still well-spent…if my feedback can teach its the perpetrator how not to do it again.)

For formal communication, a thesis is the absolutely indispensable linchpin to your effort–whether that is a paper, an article, a chapter, or a book.  It is more than just a topic sentence, as so many seem to think.  It is a clear, provable point that your reader will, at the end of it all, be able to say they believe or disbelieve based on your evidence.  It forms the most basic (and most important) way to measure your success as an author of formal prose.  If you prove your thesis to your reader, your paper does its job; if you do not, you fail, no matter what else you do.

Surprisingly, even people who think themselves “good” writers seem to know very little about writing a good thesis.  Consider the difference between the two following examples:

  • Bad:  “This paper is about Henry V at Agincourt.”–So what?  How do you “prove” that?  How does it show what you have to say?  How can I know when you’ve succeeded in making your point?  How do I even know you have a point?
  • Good:  “Henry V’s strong leadership at Agincourt turned disaster into victory.”  Here, I can see clearly what you intend to say and I know what standard to hold you against.    At the end, I will be able to either say that I believe you are right or wrong, and you now have a chance to convince me.

I tell my students that at the end of their research, before they start writing, they should tell me what they learned about their topic, boiled down into a single sentence.  That sentence becomes the thesis statement.  The rest of the paper unfolds from there.  What are the main points that I need to know in order to believe that your thesis is true and accurate?  Those become the supporting points of your paper.  What must I know in order to understand each supporting point?  That information becomes a sub point.  Each level should clearly relate to the one above it–sub-point to supporting point to thesis.*

In a very real way, your thesis becomes your guide for what to include and what to exclude from your paper.  As the rule of thumb goes, no more than 10% of your research can make it into your final product.**  How can you tell what to leave aside?  If it doesn’t support your thesis, it’s right out.  What if other evidence is stronger?  Then you make that call based on how much room you have.

Relating this to fiction, I find that understanding the “thesis” is just as important, though its implementation is far less formulaic.  In my own humble opinion, if you are writing a coherent, intelligent story (the kind of thing I like to read), you must keep your ultimate goals in mind when you are proceeding.  You don’t need to summarize it all in a single thesis statement or chart out your prose on a point-by-point basis.  Still, the fact remains that if you don’t know where your story is going, your readers certainly won’t be able to figure it out either.  They’ll be doomed to wander the wasteland that is your story until they finally tire of it and put you down in favor of someone or something that actually has a purpose and seems to matter.

To that end, while you should still maintain plenty of flexibility, it is also a good idea to have at least the basic points of your story mapped out ahead of time.  You may choose to keep them in your head, but I find that it’s useful to put them to paper–I often come back later and am amazed at some of my own thoughts, long forgotten.  It also helps you see how things relate in ways that you might otherwise miss.

Ironically, while there may be times that you want it to appear that you have no point, in reality this is one of those truisms that cannot be denied.  You will always have a point. You will always  mean to say something–even if your point is to say that there is no meaning!  To deny it usually degenerates into mock-worthy nonsense and pseudo-intellectual attempts at profundity.  Therefore, I would argue that if we must have a point, let’s do it right.

Next Week:  Forgetting your place–the author as first person

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*Incidentally, your title should clearly point us to your thesis.  Your thesis then becomes the reader’s key to the rest of your paper.

**If you can put all of your research into the final paper, you haven’t done enough research!

More in the How NOT to Write series:

How NOT to Write: Tackling too much!

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

__________

This week we deal with a problem on the other end of the spectrum from the previous.  Last time we talked about, essentially, students who are slackers (and often see no problem with that).  This time we’re looking at an error that writers who are trying to excel fall into all too often:   trying to fit far too much into too little space/time.  It all gets down to planning.

Sometimes, this really is the problem that the rest of us only wish we had!  There are times when our ideas simply outstrip the capacity of our perceived outlets.  We have so many things we want/need to express that we try to cram them all in at once anyway.  I graded a graduate essay like this recently.  The student had a slew of great points to make about his topic.  What resulted was a paper that really would have made several good chapters in a thesis or dissertation.  He bounced from well-written topic to well-written topic so quickly that he never had time to say anything substantial about any one of them.  Worse, the topics were far bigger than his thesis could contain.  That resulted in him regularly veering off course and losing focus.

Other times students are afraid that they won’t have enough to say and so, to compensate, they choose a gigantic topic that they couldn’t treat properly in 500 pages let alone 15.  Given, this sometimes gets down to poor titling–if your paper is about the Cuban Missile Crisis don’t call it “The Cold War”–but as often as not it is just poor planning.  Students who take this approach often end up with nothing substantial to say.  It is physically impossible for them to fit what they need to discuss into the space that they have and so they use themselves up with either vague generalities or a wad of disconnected points of brilliance, the sum of which is often simple nonsense.

The truth is that anyone can write a paper of any length on any general topic, if only he/she has the wisdom to identify how big of a chunk to bite off of it.  For longer projects, you broaden your scope (i.e. Confederate diplomacy in the Civil War), for shorter ones you narrow it down to something manageable (i.e. Confederate diplomacy in Britain) and from there on down depending on the length allowed (i.e. Confederate diplomacy in the Trent Affair; John Slidell in the Trent Affair, etc.).  A further winnowing comes when you begin to consider what facts you need to include in order to actually make your point–but we’ll cover that next week when we talk about a thesis.

What does all this have to do with writing fiction?  This is an essential skill for any author, especially because, as you progress as a writer, it is the shorter pieces that you will find more difficult.  Anyone who can string words together can usually come up with something worth saying if you let him/her ramble on for long enough.  Saying something substantial in 1500 (or even 500) words is much more difficult.  Every syllable must count.  Telling the story of an entire world in 300,000 words is one thing.  Doing it in, say, 60,000 is quite another (if, for instance, you’re aiming at younger readers and you aren’t J. K. Rowling).  Even Tolkien had to consider this, resulting in the break up of the Lord of the Rings into the three volumes we know today.  Short stories can quickly become novellas then novelettes then books and then we forget who we were writing it all to in the first place.

The process for heading this off in fiction is very similar to what I discussed above.  It all begins with a little planning.  You must begin with a clear idea of your topic (i.e. the basic point of your story–what do you want people to get from it?).  You then think through the arc of your story and chart the basics of where you want it to go and ask some simple questions:  How long will the story be?  Can you realistically fit it into the space that you’ve set for yourself?  If not, how will you divide it into those more “manageable chunks” we discussed?  What organizational scheme should you use?  Write all of this down in a file or a notebook.  I would even consider charting some of it out visually.  The more of it you record, the less chance you have of forgetting any of it!

Of course, there are times that you’ll want to throw caution to the wind!  If your purpose is to confuse/befuddle/overwhelm your reader, then cramming too much information in to too small a space is one good way to do it.  You can also create an effect of confusion and disorientation by jumping from point-to-point-to-point in a plot that it too complex to reasonably express in so short a space.  The key is to do so in a controlled, intentional fashion.  If it ever gets out of hand, you’ll lose your reader and your method will have officially become a liability.  Also, if you feel a moment of inspiration coming upon you don’t hold back!  Write it all down and sort it out later.

In the end, you can, of course, just dive into your project with abandon and no proper sense of purpose, but that will often result in more frustration than it does creativity.  After all, we want to spend as much time in the “creating” as possible, and as little as we can on cleaning up.

Next Week:  The thesis and other forgotten arts.

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More in the How NOT to Write series:

How NOT to Write: Pay no attention to details!

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

__________

There is a problem with the world today–it is called apathy.  I wish that I could blame it all on me getting older (and therefore more curmudgeonly in my observations), but I just don’t think that is justified.  As Don mentioned back in April in “The Barbarians are Coming!” there seems to be a drastic upswing the number of people in college who just don’t care and they think everyone should be OK with that.  This attitude reflects into many parts of life–personal relationships, professional behavior, and, yes, even writing.

In the last ten years I’ve seen an increasing number of students just “not bother” to do things right, for lack of a better description.  In the classroom, they refuse to take notes, even after being warned that the material on the test is coming straight from the (unpublished) lectures.  They come and go from the classroom as they please, and often don’t bother to come at all until the day of the test.  I spell their assignments out, in detail, in their syllabus and in class; sometimes a third of the class comes up short of meeting even the  minimums, and half the class (or more) fails to meet at least one basic requirement.  The particular minimum varies widely–editing for common errors, using the assigned notation style consistently, not enough sources, no attempt at basic organization, etc. etc. etc.  In all cases, the student seems to think that since he/she covered some of the major requirements, the details aren’t worth bothering over.

(Perhaps even more disheartening, one major, consistent complaint I get in my student reviews is that–in insisting that students go beyond meeting the minimums–my standards are “unreasonably high” and that I’m “too tough.”  And people wonder why we homeschool.)

There are, of course, usually only two reasonable options as to why this happens:  either the student in question is completely incompetent (most aren’t) or they simply don’t care enough about what they’re doing to actually try to get it right.*  Some of this is undoubtedly due to the “everyone gets a trophy” culture of the last decade or two.  Those students are used to getting accolades without having to actually work for them.  Another likely culprit is the “consumer culture” that is being created at some American colleges and universities.**

As a professor, one of the most basic things I expect out of a student’s paper is a level of intelligent self-respect.  If you think so little of your efforts that you cannot even be bothered to reach the minimums, you should not be surprised to see that you get a failing grade.  You may not be brilliant, you may not win a Pulitzer for the paper you wrote in my class, but I want to see you at least take some pride in what you do.  If you learn nothing else from me than this one point, I think your money will be well spent.

Unlike some of the other errors I’ll discuss, we as writers should reject apathy and laziness outright.  If we don’t care enough about our writing to get it right on even the most basic level, how can we expect anyone else to care about it?  Even if you can write a “good” book (or paper) with a slovenly method, imagine what you could do if you really tried?  Still, there is at least one way for you to benefit from this very disadvantageous social trend–even if you don’t directly partake.  One side effect that I’ve seen first hand is that when the world around us degrades substantially, as our culture has since the 1960s, it becomes easier to stand out.  As long as you maintain strong moral and professional standards, you will turn some heads.  The irony is that you will do this not by going above and beyond the call of duty, but rather by simply doing a good job.  But why stop there?  Set your standards as high as you can and see what happens!

In the end, if you care about what you’re doing, if you give it your very best, it will come through in your writing.  Your passion can be infectious and will set a tone where people will want to read your story because you yourself wanted so badly to write it properly.  Take pride, take care, take time, and get it right.  That is an essential step to any kind of good writing.

Next Week:  Tackling too much!

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*I have considered–and usually dismiss–the idea that they just don’t know what they’re doing because of the sad state of the education system in America.  That can explain some cases in my survey classes, but many of these students are still writing papers like this all the way into my junior level and senior level history classes–where I review the steps to good writing in detail.  If I know they’ve been given the information they need, I know they have the opportunity to ask questions, and they still produce slop, I’m forced to consider the points above.

**While I do agree that there are a number of points on which the average institution of higher education needs desperate reformation, consumerism has the effect of saving the village by destroying the village.  After all, if the student is the consumer, that makes the professor little better than a customer service representative.  Most students demand what they want (an A or a B with just enough work to make them feel like they’ve done something for it) rather than what they need (to be held to the standard they face in the larger world and pushed to become better).  And how can you grade a customer when the customer is always right?

More in the How NOT to Write series: