Portrait of the Artist
Awhile back, I read an article about canoeing in the Alaska wilderness. I didn't save the piece, but it stayed with me -- for all the wrong reasons. Here's an example (paraphrased) of the author's account:
After a long day of paddling my canoe through the twisting waterways of the Someplaceorother Delta, I was glad to see the sandbar on which we would camp that night. The sun was setting, and the colors on the river reminded me of a blurred watercolor painting. I watched as a skein of geese descended toward some marsh I could not see, their wild cries reminding me just how far I had traveled from the land of cell phones and car alarms. As I steered my canoe to the shore, I marveled yet again at the magnificence of this mountain wilderness...
What's wrong with this picture? Nothing, if it is intended as a self-portrait. If it is intended as a portrait of a location, however, it fails miserably. Why? Because instead of seeing what the author sees, I am forced to watch the author "seeing" it; instead of being permitted to react in my own way to the images presented, I am forced to share the author's reactions. In short, the author can't get out of the way.
When you look at a photograph, you see the image that the photographer wants you to see. Imagine how distracting it would be if, instead of seeing a photographed image, you were presented with a picture of the photographer taking that image! That's the problem with the paragraph above. The author is standing between the reader and the image or experience the author seeks to convey.
Imagine how this piece might read if the author stepped out of the picture:
After a long day of paddling through the twisting waterways of the Delta, I was glad to see camp on the sandbar that jutted into the river. The setting sun reflected off the water, turning the river into paintbox swirls of carmine and gold. A skein of geese descended toward some hidden marsh for the night, their wild cries a glorious reminder of how far this mountain wilderness was from the world of cell phones and car alarms.
Notice that the author hasn't become completely invisible. The article is, after all, a first-person account of a canoe trip. Instead of overwhelming us with personal glimpses, however, the author in this paragraph steps in just long enough to establish a point of view (we know it is the author seeing the sunset and the geese), and then steps out of the way to let us appreciate the scenery.
First-person narration isn't necessarily a bad thing. In many articles, it is desirable and appropriate. In many others, however, it is out of place. One of the things an author needs to know is when to be part of the scene -- and when to remain invisible, framing the picture without entering it.
Getting the "I" Out
While creeping first-personitis can appear anywhere, it is especially common -- and especially damaging -- in three types of articles: Interviews, travel features, and self-help/how-to articles. Each offers tempting reasons to include the narrator in the narration -- at the risk of distracting the reader from the primary goal of the article.
Interviews. Too many interview pieces read something like this:
Settling myself in one of the comfortable, overstuffed chairs that accented Mary Smith's living room, I switched on my tape-recorder. Leaning forward, I asked Mary what she thought of the current legislation... I listened as Mary told me about her experiences with City Hall... Later, Mary proudly showed me the award she had received from...
This interview seems to be saying, "Look at me! I'm interviewing Mary Smith! I'm in her living room! Isn't that cool?" Unfortunately, this type of author intrusion not only distracts the reader from the central purpose of the interview (Mary Smith's opinions and experiences), but can also make the author look like an amateur.
The solution in this case is to ruthlessly weed out any reference to self. Start by cutting any descriptions of your own actions (I sat, I asked, I listened, I turned on my tape recorder, etc.). Unless these actions contribute in some way to the reader's understanding of Mary, they have no place in your interview.
This isn't always as easy as it sounds. What about those overstuffed chairs, for example? You want the reader to see Mary's living room, and you want to avoid sterile descriptions ("Mary's living room contained several overstuffed chairs"), so it seems logical to use personal action to convey this information. But must it be yours? Where does Mary sit? You could just as easily tell the reader that Mary settled herself comfortably in one of those chairs. Or, if she didn't, you can use that to add still more to your picture: "Avoiding the many overstuffed chairs that accented her living room, Mary paced the carpet," or "Despite the number of overstuffed chairs in the room, Mary chose to perch awkwardly on a hard, narrow stool."
Another way to remove yourself from the scene is to choose verbs that do not require an indirect object. For example, instead of saying "Mary proudly showed me her award," choose another verb. "Mary proudly displayed her award" would work just as well, and keep you safely out of the picture.
Travel Articles. When writing about exotic destinations, you may need to convince the reader (and editor) that you have actually climbed that mountain, slept in that hotel, eaten in that bistro. Your opinions count; readers want your impressions of a place (positive or negative). So how do you decide how much of "you" to include?
Once again, a photographic analogy may be helpful: Focus. Remember that the reader is viewing your destination through the lens of your experience; it's up to you to choose where to focus that lens. You don't want your article to look like those dreadful travel photos taken by tourists who manage to include themselves in every shot!
One way to sharpen your focus is to remove "interpretive" or "reactive" statements from your article. If you liked the food in a particular restaurant, don't say that you thought it was good or that it seemed good to you; just say that it was good. If the hotel bed was lumpy, don't say that it felt lumpy, just say that it had lumps. Try to avoid telling the reader how you felt or reacted; instead, paint a vivid picture of the experience to evoke a reaction in the reader.
Watch out, as well, for "me" phrases -- "they told me, it seemed to me, he showed me," etc. Whenever possible, use verbs that can act alone, without your interference. For example, instead of writing, "The locals told me that a ghost walks those halls at night," try "Locals say" or "Locals claim."
In a travel article, a little first-person can go a long way. Often, you'll only need to insert yourself into a paragraph once to establish your viewpoint and presence on the scene. For example, if you say, "We drove to the monastery that overlooks the valley," you don't need to go on to say that you admired the view. Instead, describe the view in terms that will enable the reader to admire it through your eyes.
Self-Help/How-To Articles. Because self-help and how-to articles often result from personal experience, it is tempting to include hefty doses of that experience in the article. It's also easy to forget who the article is about. Since you're writing "about" your experience, you may start to think that the article is "about" you -- but it isn't. A successful self-help/how-to article is not about the author, but about the reader. The author's experience simply serves as a foundation for information that will benefit the reader.
Personal, anecdotal elements can contribute to such an article, but should not be overdone. It's best to use the "what happened to me" portion of the article primarily as a framework, to establish the scene and the context. Then, shift away from your own perspective and focus on the reader.
The easiest way to do this is to consciously shift from a "me" focus to a "you" focus. Whenever you find yourself writing in the first person, consider whether you could express the same information in another way, such as second person, third person, or directive. For example, instead of writing:
During my job hunt, I found that regular exercise helped reduce my stress levels (first person),
you could write:
During your job hunt, you may find that regular exercise helps reduce your stress levels (second person)
Many find that regular exercise helps reduce the stress of a job hunt (third person)
During a job hunt, reduce stress by finding time to exercise regularly (directive).
Each of these approaches shifts the "viewpoint" of the article away from the narrator (you) and toward the reader. This reminds the reader that s/he is the focus of the article, and enables the reader to focus on the key points of the article rather than on the person making those points.
Writing, by its nature, is an "invisible" occupation. Our editors and readers rarely know our faces, only our words. Consequently, it can be tempting to try to reveal ourselves in our work -- to stand for a moment in the spotlight of our own creations. Tempting, but perilous. The bottom line is simply this: The less visible you are in your work, the more editors (and readers) will want to see of that work!
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen