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Me, Myself, and I: The personal touch can be heavy-handed

by Paula LaRocque on August 27th, 2012

[This blog is for Meg Powell Cullar and her students.  It originally appeared in Quill, the magazine for the Society of Professional Journalists.]

Media writers are often advised to avoid first-person pronouns in their work, and for good reason.  The greenest reporter knows there’s no place for first-person pronouns in objective news coverage, and that focusing on oneself in analyses or opinion writing is suspect even if permissible.  So this most obvious kind of writer intrusion is rarely a problem in hard news.  It arises chiefly in columns, criticism, and features.

The problem is one of focus.  The best writers focus tightly and relentlessly upon some subject other than themselves.  They are like cinematographers.  They illumine the subject, and they themselves stay offstage.  Sometimes they develop literary or rhetorical devices to help them stay out of the copy.  Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, for example, often writes in the third person (she) when writing of herself.  And Mike Royko, also a syndicated columnist, sometimes dispenses opinion through imagined conversations between created characters.

Such devices are alter egos that let the writer avoid that off-putting me, myself and I.

Unfortunately, as newspaper writers search for their own strongest, most colorful and individual voice, they sometimes latch onto an egocentric writing style that is as boorish as it is misguided.  They’ve been admonished to tell stories, to “get the people in,” to be human, personal, and revealing.  So they tell their stories, get themselves in, and the humanity they reveal is their own.

Do they never guess that most readers respond:  Who cares?

The sad truth is that most people who cry look at me are not very interesting.  And neither are writers who write about themselves.  It’s true that some of the most memorable and affecting pieces we’ve read have been first-person accounts.  But those were the exceptional accounts of exceptional events or people.  Take, for example, Associated Press writer Tad Bartimus’ prize-winning first-person story of her father’s death.  People die every day.  But Ms. Bartimus’ father died only once; it was an exceptional event matched by an exceptional treatment from a writer who did not ordinarily write about herself.

Effective first-person accounts in which the writer is the subject can teach us something about the human condition and the universality of human experience.  They are both welcome and enriching.  But when the subject is something or someone other than the writer and still the writer is in the story, the reader wants to say you again? In those cases, the writer is cheapened and the reader cheated.

Here are some examples.

• A food writer’s subject is the joy of canning.  But she begins with a tedious childhood reminiscence on canning day at Auntie’s farm.

• A travel writer gives a detailed report on what he did in Belgium—rather than what the reader might similarly do.

• A film critic doesn’t review a newly released tearjerker so much as he reviews his own performance as a Sensitive Guy.  He takes four paragraphs to say how hard the movie made him cry.

• A columnist on the work of a local artist:

I thought the small, dense works so different from the large airy ones greeting me in the foyer that I found it hard to believe they were from the same painter.  When I mentioned it, he told me I was right—that he was in a sense different people when he created them.

How do we stay out and still stay personal? It’s neither difficult nor a mystery.  Reader-friendly writing focuses on the reader (and the subject) rather than on the writer:

• Maybe you already know about the joys of canning.  Maybe you’ve admired your own freshly filled Mason jars, immaculate and glowing on the shelf.

• If you find yourself in Brussels, consider renting a car for a side trip over the hump-backed bridges of Bruge.

• Just try to sit dry-eyed through “Tijuana Tear-Jerker.”

• The small, dense canvases are so different from the large, open ones in the foyer that they seem the work of different painters.  Yes, acknowledges the artist—in a sense, he was different people when he created them.

Again, it’s not that first-person pronouns are forbidden, or should be.  If there’s compelling and appropriate reason to use them, we needn’t hesitate.  Otherwise, we should be modest—and find interesting, imaginative and engaging ways to stay out of the work.  After all, it’s both better writing and better manners to aim our cameras at something other than ourselves.

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