Sunday, July 26, 2009

Nitpicking the First Person

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. ~ T. S. Eliot

In the other blog, I recently wrote a little ditty discussing a story about The Elements of Style, which has been the semi-precious-metal standard for writing for some years now. One of the elements I mentioned was that the use of the first person singular should be avoided unless the writer's subject was purely personal. Evidently, this style point has ceased to be taught in professional or journalistic writing classes.

I regularly read three magazines: Archaeology, The Smithsonian Magazine, and Biblical Archaeology Review. I have noticed an annoying trend that shows up in all three publications, so I must assume it's showing up in other non-fiction writing as well. What I'm talking about, if you haven't got my drift yet, is the ever-increasing intrusion of the use of the first person singular in articles that are not personal in nature.

An example of what I'm trying to describe (in my fumbling way) appears in the current issue of one the aforementioned magazines (name withheld to protect the guilty). In one article, the writer leads with "Shielding my eyes from the glare of the morning sun, I look toward the horizon ..." and goes on to tell us how she is at a particular historical location. A little later, she continues that she has arrived at the site (as if we were worried she wouldn't make it), saying "I drive partway up the mountain where I will meet" the person who is the expert on the site. "I am the sole visitor," she tells us for no good reason. Then: "At a kiosk, I buy a ticket that lets me ascend on foot ..."

I allow the reader to ponder how someone is coming to do an interview should have to buy a ticket to get to the interviewee.

At any rate, the travelogue continues for a few more paragraphs before the author relents and actually gets to the subject of the article.

Now the critical reader might complain that I am certainly no slouch at using the first person myself. But, this is a blog involving my opinions. There is a lot of me involved here, as one would expect. However, if I were to write an article about, say, a dig site where a major discovery had been made, I would certainly not spend time telling you how hot the day was when I got there, how tiresome the hike to the area was, and how scenic I found the views to be. I would spend a lot of time telling you about the dig and what had been discovered, quoting extensively from those involved in the dig and from other experts in the field. The only personal intrusions would be if I wished to express an opinion on the findings, and then only to make it clear that it was my opinion and not someone else's.

That's what you'd expect, and you'd be right to do so.

To be fair, the article I've been discussing does eventually get to the point and provide some interesting information, but the writer takes her sweet old time getting there. And she's not alone. I've seen this trend in article after article, and, frankly, I'm tired of it.

Now, there are lots of good articles that need the first person. For example, The Smithsonian Magazine has a series called "My Kind of Town", where well-known authors talk about their home towns. I'd expect a lot of first person in that; after all, the stories are as much about the influence of the town as about the bricks, mortar, and people who make it up.

Or, say the article is written by the person who has made a particular discovery. It would be hard to avoid the use of the first person, although most such articles tend to use the first person plural, because many discoveries involve the work of a team. The only time the use of the first person gets in the way in such stories is when the author gets into the same travelogue mode I discussed above.

It's rather like what Sherlock Holmes said to Watson one time when Watson was describing the results of an investigation Holmes had asked him to do. As Watson began to wax eloquently about the foliage and scenery, Holmes cuts him off with, "Cut the poetry, Watson, and get to the point."

That's exactly what I'm trying to say to these writers who insist on telling us how hot they are, how amazed they are, how dirty they are, or how cold they are. I don't really care, and I suspect the average reader of these periodicals doesn't care either. The reason folks like me subscribed to these magazines to learn new stuff. The fact that it's hot in the desert or cold in Alaska isn't new.

So, cut the poetry, guys, and get to the point. We'll all appreciate it.

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