Filtering devices: avoiding repetition in the first person (tip 36) Reply

Some writers worry about repeating ‘I’ when writing in the first person. Here’s some advice on avoiding repetition through cutting out filtering devices and telling the story through external concrete detail. Thanks to Veronica Charyton for suggesting this topic.

Video transcript follows below:

We’ve had a request to cover the problem of repetition when writing in the first person. Some writers find that their narrators keep saying I did this and I said that and I felt the next thing, and the same problem can arise when writing in the third person – some writers find they keep repeating the protagonist’s name, or using a personal pronoun, often at the start of sentences. The main things to remember are to tell the story though external concrete detail and to cut out filtering devices.

Here’s a paragraph that struggles with repetition:

I walked down the street and I looked around. I saw shops that were boarded up and I felt saddened by the sorry state of the town. I crunched broken glass underfoot. I read the graffiti on a metal shutter that said, in big dripping letters, ‘THE END IS NIGH.’ I heard a blaring siren and I shivered inside. I felt the first drops of rain and I shook my head at the sorry scene. I paused for a moment and then I walked on.

First, let’s allow the external concrete detail to carry the scene’s emotion. It’s obvious from her description that the narrator thinks the town is in a sorry state. Her description is a sad one, and it’s of no importance whether or not she shakes her head or shivers.

Next, let’s cut the filtering devices. Filtering devices needlessly filter an image through some observing consciousness. Phrases such as ‘he noticed’, ‘it occurred to her’, ‘she looked over and saw,’ ‘she heard’, etc, can clutter sentences and distance the reader from the sensory image. If your narrator describes something, we know she has experienced it.

So let’s rewrite this without ‘I looked’, ‘I saw’, ‘I read’, ‘I heard’, and ‘I felt’:

The shops were boarded up and glass crunched underfoot. Across a metal shutter, daubed in big dripping letters, graffiti read ‘THE END IS NIGH.’ A siren sounded as it started to rain. After a moment, I walked on.

That’s not great, but it’s better, and the repetition has gone. If you take out the filtering devices and let the concrete detail speak for itself, but still feel you’re repeating those pronouns too often – don’t worry; you probably notice the repetition more than your readers will.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by JD Hancock. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here:

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