DIY Edit: 04 Self-Referential Language

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

04 Narration: Self-Referential Language

One of my writing professors always marked our stories for what she called “self-referential language.” This syntax plagues first person and close third person point of view by calling attention to the fact that the reader is an observer of a character.

Phrases like “I watched…” or “She looked…” or “He heard…” shift the focus from the POV character’s observations (the purpose of first and close third narration) to the observation of the character.

Consider the difference in these sentences:

From the window I watched the valets pack the carriage.

Outside the window, the valets packed the carriage.

In the first sentence, the reader is focused on the character watching the valets through the window. If this image were in a movie, the screen would include the window frame and the character in front of the window, looking out on the valets.

In the second sentence, it’s still clear that the POV character is inside the house, but this version of the sentence focuses the reader on watching the valets through the eyes of the POV character. As a movie, what the character is watching fills the screen, and the reader is fully immersed in the point of view of the first person narrator.

Editing out self-referential language can make the point of view more immersive and bring the reader closer to the characters and action. It can also help eliminate weak and overused verbs. Here are some combinations to look out for when trying to strengthen your point of view narration:

I/he/she watched
I/he/she saw
I/he/she looked
I/he/she heard
I/he/she listened
I/he/she touched
I/he/she smelled
I/he/she tasted

Watch out for other verbs and sentence constructions that put the emphasis on the character observing rather than on what the character is observing.

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