A Writing Tip by Karen Rile

Here’s the truth: Your first instinct is your best. Write the draft the way it comes to you.

Maybe your story comes out naturally in first person. And you nail it, fluently: the voice, the character, the plot. Brava!

Here’s the rub: You show your draft to trusted readers and—what the heck?—they don’t get it. This narrator is too unlikeable to care about, they complain. They confuse the narrator’s motivations with the story’s intent. They miss your carefully laid irony.

Should you fire your writers’ workshop and look for a new set of literary peers? Hold on. Your story isn’t quite telling itself.

Here’s the tip: When something feels off about your first-person narrative, try reworking it in a close third-person voice. This is a minor adjustment that produces big results. Third person breathes a puff of air, a little narrative distance, into your story while preserving the first-person flavor and voiciness.

There was nothing wrong with your initial impulse. It just needed a little tweak. Try it!

Karen Rile

Karen Rile is chief editor of Cleaver, which she co-founded in 2013 with Lauren Rile Smith. She is the author of Winter Music, a novel set in Philadelphia, and numerous works of fiction and creative nonfiction. She lives in Philadelphia and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Instagram @whatkindofdog.

Cleaver Magazine