Comments from an Editor

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  • #9727
    Doug
    Participant

    This morning I got a rejection slip–bummer–but it included a couple of helpful items I’d somehow never seen before. I’ll cut & paste them here:

    >Your paper is written in the first person. The problem with a person new to writing doing so in first person revolves around the overuse of the pronoun “I.” The goal to writing in first person is to try to write the piece without using “I.” Your overuse here causes a redundancy in the reading.<

    Somehow I’d never thought about this. While I’m well aware of overused words and watching out for them (furrowed brows, raised eyebrows, turned to look, etc.) I never considered the inevitability of overusing “I” when writing in the first person. So the challenge is to reduce them to as few as possible. So maybe best go back over every story I’ve written that’s in the first person.

    >Second, in narrative writing it is not acceptable to use contractions. Contractions reflect slang or dialectical usage in language. This slang affect should be reserved for dialog only.<

    OK, fair enough… I didn’t think I was doing it that much. Maybe it comes down to a note I once received from Marion Zimmer Bradley, which simply said, “Proofread carefully.”

    #9728
    JaneShuff
    Participant

    Interesting. I would have said it is perfectly acceptable to use contractions such as I’m, He’d, don’t etc in narrative writing. In fact I think it’s fine to use anything you want provided it doesn’t obscure the meaning. It’s all down to what the voice and style require.

    #9730
    Sandra
    Participant

    Having heard of someone else’s concern about the danger of overusing ‘I’ I am more sensitive, and have seen writing where it becomes a pain, but it’s hard to cut beyond a certain point. As for contractions – sometimes NOT to use them adds an unnatural stiltedness; like Jane says, their use needs tailoring to what’s being written.

    #9731
    RichardB
    Participant

    My immediate and visceral reaction to both criticisms was ‘Bollocks!’ If writing in first person, what other pronoun is there for you to use? How are you going to avoid the pronoun? If writing in third person, does the same criticism apply to ‘he, ‘she’ or ‘they?’ I suspect the real problem is not with the pronoun itself but with the style. As for the second criticism, I’ve just been struggling with a story by Henry James. The style is so flowery and verbose that several times I’ve had to go back over sentences to try to understand what he’s driving at. This is writing from a much more formal age, and yet with all that he uses those ‘forbidden’ contractions. As Jane and Sandra say, it depends on what suits. What we have here is an editor with a mind set like concrete, full of rules and proscriptions.

    #9739
    Libby
    Participant

    As Richard says, this seems more about style, and a rigid editor, than about the rich possibilities of first-person narrators.

    I’m the first to agree that repetition of ‘I’ can be a problem, just as repetition of any word can trip up the reader. And the over-repeated ‘I’ can be hard to get rid of, as I know from my own efforts.

    It can also make the reader feel kept at a frustrating distance from the first-person character. Some of the answer lies in moving further inside the protagonist’s head. It’s easier then to cut back on some of the I’s. See the great Emma Darwin’s blog This Itch of Writing and see if you can find the one on Psychic Distance: what it is and how to use it.

    The Den seems not to like my link so I can’t post it.

    If you don’t already know Emma Darwin’s blog, it’s a treasure trove. It’s only downside is the search function – useless – so when you find a really helpful post (and most are) keep the link or whatever.

    If you get really stuck finding the right blog post, let me know.

    Another point is that there are times when an author may want to keep the first-person narrator at a distance so the reader can keep a bird’s eye view of them, so to speak. Have a look at the first page of Asylum by Patrick McGrath. The narrator is pompous, opinionated, and frequently wrong. McGrath wants his readers to judge this man, to think for themselves what’s really going on in this story. He does that by using the character’s pomposity and the frequent use of I, me and my.

    The opening pages of Asylum are on the Amazon sales website.

    • This reply was modified 5 months, 1 week ago by Libby.
    • This reply was modified 5 months, 1 week ago by Libby.
    #9743
    RichardB
    Participant

    It occurs to me that one reason for over-use of ‘I’, or any other pronoun come to that, is filtering. This is another cause of the ‘frustrating distance’ Libby mentions, and Emma Darwin (Who else?) explains it far better than I could.
    I’m having trouble linking too, so copy and paste this:
    https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2016/07/filtering.html?cid=6a00e54eced2e188330240a4a66857200c#comment-6a00e54eced2e188330240a4a66857200c

    #9744
    RichardB
    Participant

    Well bugger me. Apparently, if you just copy and paste a URL into here, without bothering with that ‘link’ button, it links automatically. You live and learn.

    #9745
    Libby
    Participant

    Thanks, Richard. I tried to copy the link first of all and couldn’t make it work. Thank you for a working link to Emma Darwin.

    BTW have you seen this on the BBC news website today?

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-55937512

    Blast, link not working. BBC news website, go to the Wales tab. “Station reopening at Bow Street brings first trains for 56 years”

    Sorry, disconnected links aren’t terribly helpful 🙁

    #9746
    Libby
    Participant

    Oh, it has worked!

    I’ll go back to my quill and parchment.

    #9747
    Kate
    Participant

    I write in first person a lot and the overuse of I was something that was pointed out to me early on. The writing can end up feeling like a list of stage directions. I have found that the gymnastics you have to go through to avoid overuse does what Libby mentions and moves you closer into the character’s head as well as adding voice. As Richard commented, it helps you avoid the filtering too. So I always try to be aware of those Is as I’m writing.

    As for the contraction comment. WTF. The narration around the speech, especially in first person, should reflect the characters voice. Not using contractions and slang would make this impossible. Imagine reading Catcher in the Rye in Oxford English. The voice would disappear. So I think that point is rubbish.

    #9748
    RichardB
    Participant

    Having written an entire novel in colloquial first person a la Catcher in the Rye, having made a conscious effort to break through my inhibitions about departing from Oxford (or Queen’s, or formal – call it what you will) English to do so, and having found the process liberating and rather fun, I’ll give a heartfelt ‘Hear, hear!’ to that. Okay, it’s not found a publisher and most likely never will, but the point is still valid.

    Oh, and thanks for that link, Libby. Interesting.

    #9762
    Squidge
    Participant

    Is it worth having a look at how you’ve used ‘I’, Doug? If you’re using it frequently, then yes, definitely worth looking up psychic distance. There’s a big difference between ‘I sit at the table near the window. Outside, I see a man fighting to keep his brolly up in the wind and rain’, and ‘I sit at the table near the window and watch the man outside, fighting to keep his brolly up.’ Even in third person, if you have too many ‘he/she did this, smelled that, heard the other’, it can become distracting and you have to work really hard to take those telling words out. Of course you can’t lose them all…

    Is it worth posting a short section on here to see what others think? It could be that you came across a rigid editor, but it would be good to know if other readers feel the same way? That could point to some truth in the comment…and an opportunity to tweak what you’ve written.

    #9763
    Squidge
    Participant

    Oh – and contractions? Bunkum! If you have a distinctly voiced character, they will ‘think’ and describe in contractions just as much as they use them in dialogue. I’d have no luck with this editor cos I often write voice with contractions…makes it more real to me as the writer, and immerses the reader in the story, in my experience.

    #9790
    Bella
    Participant

    I heard an interesting podcast a while ago by Sophie Hannah. She mentioned agents who reject with more than the standard brush-off. They are generally finding there is something the matter with the submission but can’t or won’t put their finger on it so instead may jump to an “obvious” criticism and give you that. Her suggestion was that you consider what was said but don’t necessarily treat is as being the actual problem, especially if you’ve only had that comment from one person.

    #9791
    RichardB
    Participant

    As per Neil Gaiman’s fifth rule of writing:

    ‘Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’

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