First-person essays are aimed at sharing an experience, letting your reader see and feel it. They show how that experience changed your mind, affected you, educated you. Your essay is your personal journey of discovery. And your main task while writing your essay is to engage a reader to take that journey with you.
To make your thoughts and emotions run in the right direction, you need to follow the basic rules. Here is how to write from your perspective and show your reader the true sense of the story.
Choosing an Experience to Share
The topics are endless. Almost anything can be the subject material for your essay – relationships, nature, climbing, death, traveling – just ask yourself what you have experienced that has emotional appeal. Your topic can be funny, compelling or touching. If you cannot decide what to write about, ask yourself what makes you happy or what makes you sad. All topics are at your fingertips, you simply need to choose a great illustrative one that will make your reader care.
When you have a clear idea of what you want to share, go to the next important step – writing the first draft.
Preparing the First Draft
The first draft of your essay is your first step in creating a thoughtful and focused writing piece. Let your emotions and ideas flow! Don't critique your first draft, after all, you'll have time to improve it later. All you need to do right now is to describe the things that are crucial for your story – people, places, events. You need to find the balance in giving the reader enough information so they can understand your actions or decisions.
While writing your first draft, it is OK to pause, recollect your thoughts and remind yourself of your goal. When you think you've said all you can say, close your notebook and walk away. In several hours, in a day, or so, read your essay. You'll find information that shines with brilliance and you'll see plenty of unnecessary details. It's good to recognize this before you submit your work.
Style and Voice
The goal of your first-person essay is to connect with a reader, so they can visualize your point of view. You need to write in a personal, engaging, understandable and revealing way.
- Personal – You are the main protagonist, so make your essay intimate and revealing to show the reader your personal world. The best essays are written like a conversation with a smart friend, in a real and genuine way.
- Engaging – To make your essay interesting, include intriguing details, humorous experience and descriptive language. Your essay shouldn't sound like a science report, so make sure your writing style is appealing and entertaining.
- Understandable – Write in a straightforward and understandable way. Avoid using unclear references or dubious phrases. Use simple, clear and concise language that will easily connect you with a reader.
- Revealing – It is very important to make your first-person essay revealing. Personal references establish the setting, mood, theme and historical relevance. If you fail to do that, you'll find it really difficult to disclose all necessary information in your essay.
Perfecting Your Essay
The last step in crafting an effective essay is to thoroughly revise your writing piece. You've written what you think is close to a perfect work, but don't rush to submit it at once. Take time to reread your essay and ensure that it doesn't contain the common pitfalls.
A good essay is one that appeals to the five senses. Make sure you offer enough details, so your reader can see, hear and smell what you're writing about. Don't just tell the audience what's going on, use the verbs to show that. However, avoid being too emotional. It's fine to show happiness, anger or sadness, but you need to find a balance.
In addition, check your essay for grammar, punctuation, repetitions. You don't want to spoil your personal journey by silly typos or mistakes. Ask yourself if your writing is clear and to-the-point and whether you share your thoughts in the most understandable way.
Write in detail, be honest, talk about emotions and your first-person essay will surely engage your reader!
First-person perspective is kind of like cheese: some people love it, some people hate it, and when it’s poorly done, it grates.
Sorry for the pun.
I personally love first-person, and it is my joy to share one simple, quick writing tip that can help your first-person perspective writing shine: cut the filter words.
First of All, What Is Point of View?
What the heck is a filter word, you ask? Before I answer that, let’s tackle some definitions.
“Point of View” (POV) is the writer-ly term for the perspective through which you tell your story. It usually breaks down like this:
This means telling your story as “She did” and “He said,” never “I.” There are three kinds:
- Third-Person Narrator POV. In this perspective, you—the storyteller—are everywhere and know everything. You can be in anyone’s life, around any corner. A leaf fell in the park, and none of your characters saw it? You did, and you can write it down. There are no limitations to this viewpoint, though it can be difficult to make it feel personal.
- Third-Person Multiple POV. In this perspective, the author uses the viewpoints of a particular set of individuals. This one’s a lot easier to work with for one major reason: your reader only knows what these characters know, allowing your plot to unfold naturally. There’s no outside knowledge, no Unbeknownst to everyone, the water main broke beneath the garage and began to flood the driveway. If your characters didn’t see it, then the reader won’t know about it until somebody steps in mud. This perspective is told through the eyes of that pre-set group of people in “He/She did it” fashion.
- Third-Person Limited POV. This is where you follow one person, but this still one step removed from the personal nature of First-person. This is still told as “She,” not “I,” and it’s challenging. The temptation is to slip into narrator mode and describe something happening outside your character, but to do this right, you have to limit the story to what that character knows, sees, hears, and thinks.
Almost nobody uses this (though now that I’ve said it, I’ll bet several of you will jump to the challenge). Essentially, it’s telling the story like talking to yourself. “You went to the fridge and slid the frosted drawer free, but to your amazement, it was full of beans. You had no idea what to do next. You expected avocados.”
You. You do this and that; not he, not I. You.
This is usually reserved for instruction manuals and other non-fiction essays (like this one).
Some fiction writers can really pull this off (I’m looking at you, Choose Your Own Adventure series). I am not one of them. On we go.
First Person POV
First-person perspective is essentially told like a journal entry, a personal story, or a running commentary of thoughts. The reader is not watching this character from the outside, but through this character’s eyes. We see what she sees and hear what she hears. If the character is wrong, we won’t necessarily know, because her perspective is all we have to go on. There is no distance between the reader and the character’s thoughts.
First-person perspective generally gets split up into two types:
- Present tense. This is where you write, I go to the door and scream at him to go away, all in present tense, putting you in the action at the exact time the character experiences it. It’s challenging; it’s also fun. Slipping into past tense, however, can make it pretty clunky.
- Past tense. This is more popular (and a lot simpler to write): I went to the door and screamed at him to go away. This one always feels more like a story being told, and is a good place to start for first-time first-person writers.
So what makes first person perspective so wonderful in some cases and so terrible in others?
There are plenty of factors such as:
- Pacing (the timing of incidents in the story, including what’s kept in and what’s left out);
- Voice (everyone’s thought patterns won’t sound the same; I adore Joss Whedon, but everybody can’t be that witty all the time);
- Reliability (how truthful/accurate your narrator is); etc.
Here’s the big chalupa for today: filter words.
What Are Filter Words?
A filter word puts distance between the reader and your character, filtering that character’s experience. Let’s look at an example to get a better sense:
This was magic school? I stood and stared at it; I thought it seemed to be set up to depress us. I saw the green hill rising from the earth like some kind of cancer, and I could hear the voices of students on the wind, chanting soullessly, as if the wonder and awe of true magic had been whitewashed from their lives.
Not sure what to look for? Here it is with the filter words removed.
This was magic school? It seemed to be set up to depress us. The green hill rose from the earth like some kind of cancer, and the voices of students carried on the wind, chanting soullessly, as if the wonder and awe of true magic had been whitewashed from their lives.
What did I remove? I thought, I saw, I could hear. In other words, I removed anything that had you, the reader, looking at her looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw.
This is true first-person: being behind the character’s eyes.
How to Spot Your Filter Words, with Examples
Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.
“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you’re seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.
I’m going to give you one more example from my own work. Here it is with filter words added:
I watched the box blow apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside, I saw a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.
A dragon. On my kitchen counter. I heard it squeak at me, which I thought could mean absolutely anything, and I watched as it began to preen itself like a cat.
I saw mother-of-pearl scales gleaming all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. I stared at the wee round-bellied body, resting on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. I noticed its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.
I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.
And with filter words removed:
The box blew apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside sat a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.
A dragon. On my kitchen counter. It squeaked at me, which could mean absolutely anything, and began to preen itself like a cat.
Mother-of-pearl scales gleamed all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. The wee round-bellied body rested on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. Its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.
I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.
The second example gives you Kate’s point of view through her eyes and ears. The first one forces you to watch her seeing and hearing—and takes us away from her experience.
Are Filter Words Ever Okay?
Because I love ya, I will state that there are plenty of valid exceptions. There will be times that your first-person perspective uses those filter words to great effect.
For example, “I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the scissors,” expresses your character’s frustration, which is more important than the counter and shelves he’s seeing. It’s a matter of emphasis and where you want the reader’s thoughts to go.
Filter words can be stylistic, largely tied to voice. I have one character from the deep south, for example, who tends to use them as part of his storytelling: “And then I look over there, and what do I see but that damn fool, makin’ off with my breakfast.”
There will always be times to use filter words, but it’s crucial that you only use them when you’re aware of it, not by accident. If you’re ever in doubt, just ask yourself this question: where do you want your reader’s eyes to be?
How about you? Which point of view do you write in most? Do you think YOU use filter words? Let us know in the comments.
It’s time to take what you’ve learned about filter words and first-person perspective and apply them to your writing. Spend fifteen minutes or more writing in first person, and do your best to avoid using filter words. Then, share your results in the comments. Don’t forget to reply to someone else’s post, as well!
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