When line editing a manuscript written in first person, I see many of the same issues crop up time and time again. But if you keep your eye (and ear) out for these common first-person pitfalls when doing your self-editing passes, you can catch a lot of them before handing off your manuscript to an editor, saving them time. And you money.
And since many of the things on the following list would only be addressed in a line edit or a heavy copyedit, you can't always rely on your editor correcting them, especially if you hired them for a light copyedit that focuses on grammatical correctness and consistency of style. (This is why it's so important to assess what your manuscript needs and make sure the editor you hire does those things. I've worked on previously copyedited manuscripts that, while free of absolute errors, still contained many of these writing issues.)
Stories written in first person seem particularly prone to repetition of words, phrases, and sentence structure.
Voice is essential to successful first person, and one way to give your first-person narrator a distinctive voice is through word choice. But this can backfire if you rely too heavily on pet words and phrases.
For example, a tween narrator that describes every other thing as "amazing." This may be realistic (many of us have go-to phrases and tend to repeat ourselves), but overdo a word or phrase and you risk annoying the reader.
Too many "I's"
When writing in first person, you can end up with a whole lot of sentences that start with "I," which can get rhythmically repetitive—and make your narrator sound irritatingly self-absorbed to boot. But how to avoid this?
Remove unnecessary filter words
Sentence openers like "I felt," "I wondered," "I saw," and "I noticed" are often unneeded. Plus, they keep the reader at a distance.
Instead of ...
I wondered if she was avoiding me.
Was she avoiding me?
I saw her standing there, all alone.
She was standing there, all alone.
Avoid dialogue and thought tags whenever possible
When it's the narrator speaking and thinking, tags (I said, I thought, I asked) can add a lot of "I"s. Use the surrounding narrative and take care with your paragraphing to make it clear who's speaking instead.
If you have two sentences that both start with "I," try combining them so you only need one. Short punchy sentences can be great, but if most of them start with "I" the prose will feel wooden and repetitive.
Instead of ...
I walked over to the door. I knocked on it. No one was home.
I walked over to the door and knocked on it. No one was home.
Remove unnecessary stage direction
Much of the "I's" come from descriptions of action—"I did this, I did that." Furthermore, there's a tendency in first person to describe every little thing the protagonist does, even if it doesn't further the story. If you include only those actions that are most needed, you will also be cutting down on the I's. Win–win.
Shift the focus outward
Have the protagonist say things in a way that focuses less on themselves and their reactions and more on what's going on around them.
Instead of ...
Try something like ...
I don't know why ...
It's hard to explain but ...
I believe ...
In truth ...
Startled, I opened my eyes.
My eyes flew open.
I can't believe it.
What the heck?
I mean ...
2. Too much introspection
Stopping in the middle of a scene to ruminate over what just happened and what's about to happen can really slow down the pace. One of the great things about first person is that it encourages intimacy with the protagonist—but this can get claustrophobic if the protagonist spends too much time in their head. Imagine being trapped in an elevator with someone who won't stop analyzing every little detail of their lives.
Plus, reflecting on past events often comes across as explaining to the reader what has already been shown through action and dialogue, and wondering about future events can decrease narrative tension by revealing too much.
So make sure you balance the character's inner life with description, action, and dialogue.
But ... don't forget the narrator is also a character. When they're describing a sequence of actions, make sure you include their internal reactions to what's happening (unless you're deliberately trying to show a detachment or disassociation). A third-person narrator can be distant and objective, but a first-person narrator rarely can.
3. Contrived protagonist descriptions
Many readers prefer to know what the protagonist looks like, but this can be tricky in first person as most people don't comment on their appearance as if they're seeing themselves for the first time, and the first-person narrator catching their reflection in the mirror or another shiny surface has become cliché. This doesn't mean this device is completely off the table, just that if you choose to go this route, you'll have to work hard to make it fresh.
And please don't have your first-person narrator aware of their appearance in a moment when it would be the last thing on their mind.
"As I tried to escape, the man grabbed my honey-highlighted brunette layers in his
fist and yanked. So I kicked him with one of my long, muscular legs." X
Sometimes, in order to avoid naming emotions ("Don't tell us your character is nervous, show us they're nervous!"), writers have the first-person narrator overshare their bodily sensations with the reader. Stomachs twist, drop, and churn while hearts flutter, thump, speed up then slow down. Skin flushes and palms sweat.
Bodily sensations are a great way to show what a character is feeling, but a little can go a long way. One or two sensations are usually enough to suggest the character's emotions—no need for the full guided tour (unless perhaps they're suffering from food poisoning, a hangover, or a full-blown panic attack). And beware of repetition here. If your first-person narrator is experiencing fear throughout the story, there's only so many times you can mention their racing heart and fast breathing without distracting or annoying the reader and making your character seem overly self-aware.
There are other ways to show emotions: through thoughts, patterns of speech, and other character's reactions to your protagonist. And sometimes naming the emotion is actually the better choice, especially if you do so in your protagonist's voice: ("Heck yeah, I was pissed!").
"Show don't tell" is an oversimplification, and balance is key. So don't go overboard with the showing.
5. Telling the future
First person present
In a past-tense narrative, there's often the sense that the events have already happened and the narrator is telling them from a point in the future—what Alicia Rasley calls a "retrospective retelling" in The Power of Point of View. Because of this, the narrator can create drama by hinting at what's about to happen. But this technique doesn't work in present-tense narratives since a first-person narrator/protagonist is describing the events of the story as they happen (or at least this is the perception of the reader).
Therefore, anything that violates the forward flow of time will undermine the effectiveness and cohesion of a first person present point of view. For example, if the protagonist/narrator tells the reader "A voice speaks behind me" before relaying the words of the dialogue, they're telling the reader about something they should have no awareness of—because it hasn't happened yet.
So if you don't want to confuse the reader or make your character seem clairvoyant, pay careful attention to the order of events in first person present.
First person past
This may come as a surprise, but there can actually be two narrators in a first person past story. They are the same character, but at different points in time: an "after-the-fact" narrator who has the benefit of hindsight and can hint, or downright tell, what's about to happen; and a "present-time" narrator whose knowledge is limited to the scene, and events prior to the scene. N. W. Visser (in The Journal of Narrative Technique, 1977) calls these two narrators the "younger experiencing self" and the "older narrating self."
Some writers stick with only one of these narrators throughout, but some employ both, using the "after-the-fact" narrator to give overarching commentary in transitions and the "present-time" narrator to describe scenes as if they're happening in the moment—similar to the way a writer can use a distant omniscient narrator in transitions and zoom in on the POV character in scenes.
As with shifts in point of view/narrative distance, the transitions between these two temporal distances/narrative voices need to be smooth and clear. If the reader is immersed in a scene, experiencing it alongside the present-time narrator, and the "after-the-fact" narrator butts in with a comment—something that can only be known with the benefit of hindsight—it can jerk the reader right out of the story.
It is by no means always an easy matter to keep the levels of experiencing self and narrating self distinct. Sometimes it becomes difficult for readers to know to which of the levels to attribute a statement. --- N. W. Visser
As with first person present, if you're writing in first person past with a present-time narrator, having that narrator tell the reader what's going to happen makes them seem clairvoyant. So save the "little did I know ..." type statements for when you're writing from the perspective of an "after-the-fact" narrator.
But even when writing in first person past, beware of ending too many chapters with hints about what's going to happen in the next one. Just because this can be done in a "retrospective retelling" doesn't mean it should be employed frequently. Unlike with TV shows where you have to wait a week for next episode, you don't need "scenes from our next episode" to get the reader to turn the page to the next chapter. In fact, doing this too much can actually lessen the suspense and take away the reader's urgency to find out what happens next.