A Simple Request for Writers and Editors

Pretty much every thing I post to this site breaks my primary rule for writing. This post here has already broken it. It’s something I regularly scream into the abyss about. (That’s what I call posting something on Twitter, because my engagement on there is almost non-existent.) I’m okay with breaking it here, because this is my own site! And it doesn’t matter because who’s going to read it anyway?

The rule is this: Do not refer to yourself in the first paragraph, and definitely do not use a first-person pronoun as the first word in your lede. Made more prescriptive: Take yourself out of your story.Your article about a park ranger in the Smoky Mountains doesn’t need to start with “I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “our,” or any variant thereof. Your profile of an up-and-coming actor should be about the actor herself. Nobody cares about the  Ivy League writer’s fellowship winner typing away about the newest innovation in at-home climate control.

The major exception is the personal essay, which it’s impossible to remove yourself from since you are the subject of the story. But not everything is a personal essay, despite almost every single writer trying to turn their story about wolves in Yellowstone or arugula farms in California into one.

I would link to examples, but honestly, go to any website like Vox or Slate or pick up any magazine like National Geographic, Vanity Fair or The Atlantic, and you’ll see this everywhere.

I think this comes largely from the typical writer’s mindset. One thing I learned when I was getting a salary to write is that the most successful writers are aggressively self-promotional. It’s inevitable, since the bulk of the job does not consist of actual writing but rather trying to sell yourself and your ideas. You have to sell yourself during the reporting, during the pitch, during the promotion. If you’re not completely convinced of your worth — of the idea that your story is the one that people should care about today, not anybody else’s — you are not going to succeed as a writer. I’m talking specifically about journalism, but this certainly applies to book authors as well.

(I should note that there are many, many writers today are good about not doing this. Ezra Klein at Vox is a good example, as are many of the people I worked with at Eater, though food writing is otherwise one of the worst culprits.)

This problem doesn’t completely come from the writer’s mentality. Editors need to do better as well. This has become the house style of the contemporary American thinkpiece and feature article, so editors typically edit to this style. But it’s a bad style!

Much of an editor’s job consists of helping the author see the whole forest after focusing so closely on the trees for so long. When a writer does a significant amount of reporting (in the case of feature articles) or, I guess, thinking (in the case of thinkpieces), they frequently want to get every single piece of information into their article. But the editor — being removed from the research and creation of the content — can see whether or not certain pieces actually add value to the piece. It can work the same way with the scourge of unnecessary first-person! When a writer is discussing Aaron Sorkin’s newest project, she doesn’t need to talk about the first time she saw an episode of The West Wing. Inserting yourself into the story rarely adds value for the reader, and frequently it is actually distracting.

Editors, do better!

As consumers, we have very little power in this world. (This is a frequent refrain of mine.) When a company or a product annoys or offends us, all we can really do is choose not to patronize that company or buy that product. It’s different with writing. I stop reading an article if the first word is a first-person pronoun. If the writer injects him- or herself into the first paragraph, there’s only a 30 percent chance I’ll continue. But doing that doesn’t change the ecosystem at all. Writing is not like other products. By the time a writer’s annoying self-regard has turned me off, I’ve already purchased the magazine or given the website my click. As a consumer there’s almost nothing I can do to affect this ecosystem.

I’ll just continue to scream into the abyss and hope an editor somewhere hears it.


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