Monday, July 23, 2012

Draft 5 - Writing in the Fourth Person

I audited a writing course with John Casey, and he mentioned once how people seemed to be speaking more and more in the fourth person.

Fourth person?

Some conversations seem to consist almost entirely of quotes from movies, tv, and other media - the fourth person. John didn't make any disparaging remarks about this practice (he was talking to college students after all), but I have often recalled it when I've been trapped in a conversation that is almost devoid of wit and originality. Other people seem to be totally engaged as all the pop culture buttons are pushed - but why?

I am an advocate of getting words on paper quickly, of not worrying about getting every fact right, about filling out all the descriptions, or about writing scenes destined to be cut. Creator first, editor second. But with this license comes responsibility. When you get words flowing, it is easy to begin spouting shopworn, secondhand material. A little of this isn't fatal. Too much is, at best, a waste of time. At worst, it can feel close enough to right to lead to self delusion.

I have written whole chapters and complete short stories in the fourth person. Luckily, I was called on it, and I had the sense to admit my mistakes. I have a sixth sense for the "this is really easy" feeling now.  So good friends can help you.  (Note, the kind of plot borrowing that writers do all the time is not the issue here.)

How do you avoid this?
  • Prepare properly by reaching for emotions before you begin to write. Acting techniques help.
  • Make it a habit to take risks with your writing.
  • Journal your own experiences and do primary research, so you have authentic material to draw from.
  • After you finish an especially easy and painless session, make a note. Then look the next day to see if the work is shallow and lacks honesty.
  • Imagine reading the writing ten years into the future, and see if anything is too much of the current era.
Writing in the fourth person can sneak up on you, but it is unlikely to be a persistent problem. Just being aware of the danger is usually enough to keep it at bay. In my experience, more people are held back by the fear of sloppy and lazy writing than by actually committing the fourth person to paper. With a few precautions, you can write fast without falling into this trap.


  1. That's a really interesting blog post. I wonder if people even realize that they're doing it, or if it's something that beta readers will be able to catch.

    Interesting stuff, for sure.


    1. I think many people don't realize it as they write. Even something less subtle, like cliches, are often missed. Beta readers should feel it as they read, but they may not be able to articulate why parts feel flat. I have mixed feelings about suggesting they look. In general, getting directive with beta readers creates biases that make the reading less effective.
      Thanks for your comment!