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January, 2008

Greek Ghosts

"I" Isn't In
Pesky pronoun
By  Helen Dunn Frame

Once you realize how many times writers, CEO’s and other highly educated individuals use "I" in their missives, you will likely become more cognizant of how often you yourself use the first person. And no, this is not to suggest that you should never use the word, but attempting to keep the first-person pronoun to a minimum will help you write better and garner more trust in your level of expertise.

For example, the other day an author sent an email to my organization inviting us to a signing of his recently published book. His message began with the slightly off-putting, "I want to invite you to my . . . ." Instead, why not offer the invitation with reference to the receiver and say, "You are especially invited to attend . . . ." The use of "especially" makes the person feel special, important, and conveys that his attendance is desired.
In another example, a scribe used two paragraphs to explain why he was writing an article about building a wireless network. If the subject hadn’t been of interest, I would have stopped reading it after the first "I" that began the opening paragraph.
Be honest. Wouldn't you be more apt to read and respond to a more direct approach? For example, "Did you know that ABC has released a new DVD featuring . . .?" or, "XYZ newspaper announced that EFG Corporation has discovered a means of preventing computer hacking." With this approach, the reader is hooked and is likely to read on. The difference? With this approach the event takes precedence over the messenger.
People who write articles or books on esoteric subjects, even if they are experts in their fields, often err by plunging in with "I, I, I," before establishing they are indeed gurus. Instead, why not employ one of the simplest ways to achieve credibility – the third party sell, in which a well-known authority speaks on the author's behalf. For example, "Dr. Albert Jonas, noted cancer specialist, endorses Dr. Paul Tyler's discovery of a substitute for chemotherapy." If you provide the reader with kudos from one or even several pundits, he or she is ready to accept the use of "I," as long as it isn't overwhelming. Remember, a balance exists between sharing expertise and coming across as egocentric.
Once I tried to convince an author that his book about a complicated theory contained too many personal references. He just didn't seem to understand that his name was not on the tip of everyone's tongue, and that it was necessary to prove he was qualified to state these theories unequivocally. Long quotes from other scholars that were designed to support his hypotheses became tedious because the reader had to wade through them to get the gist. It would have been far better to summarize the findings for the reader and reference the original work for further investigation. Then, once the reader understood that others confirmed the author's viewpoints, he would have been more ready to accept the ideas presented in the first person.
Indeed, if I had begun this column by saying, "I want you to be aware of the use of the word I," chances are you would have thought, "Why should I care what she wants," and then skipped the article.

But by avoiding this common error, I hopefully kept your attention long enough to help you realize that "I" is rarely in vogue.

IN Tip: A good way to catch yourself over using I is to run a search throughout a piece of your writing. Each time you find "I," consider revising the sentence.

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Helen Dunn Frame. A Syracuse University journalism school graduate, published in major newspapers, magazines and trade publications in the United States, England, and Germany. Her writing skills and love of travel led her to write her mystery novel Greek Ghosts. Email: Web site:

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