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  • Diana Schneidman

“I” is not a four-letter word

The universal “they” claim that web copy should talk about “you” the reader, not “I” the writer.

The same goes for cover letters and other correspondence in the job application process as well as sales copy in general.

There are even websites that will calculate the ratio of “I” and other first-person words to “you” and other second-person choices.

However, in real life this calculation is not valuable in assessing how writing connects with the reader. “I” and similar words, such as “me” and “mine,” can communicate with power because used effectively, they create a relationship.

The power of writing is in the relationship, not specifically in word selection.

For instance, true confessions in the old romance magazines—or in contemporary sales letters—really pull us in emotionally. They shout “how I won back the boyfriend who dumped me,” and we care, even if our boyfriend has dumped us lately.

Though it’s not about us, we care as if it is.

Then there’s the language about “I” (and “we”) that we don’t care about. Corporate mission statements are perfect examples. “We strive to deliver customer service that delights, exceeds customer expectations and leads the industry.”

It’s pretentious, boring, jargon-y and feels like group write.

Or statements with long nouns, such as those ending in –ation or –ness, with bland verbs and too many adjectives. The worst copy has three adjectives or phrases that all mean the exact same thing. (See the example above.)

“I” words are scorned as self-centered; “you” words show interest in the reader, they say.

But in practice, “I” words can create a stronger bond with the reader than stuffy “you” language.

“I” language is easiest to use effectively in promoting products and services that have emotion-tugging stories. In recruiting for Alocholics Anonymous, telling your “I” story really packs a punch.

Using the warm “I” is much more difficult in promoting corporate types of freelance and consulting services because you want to project an air of authority rather than come across as too vulnerable.

But it can be done! Experiment with strong first-person writing to involve the reader better than bland “you” writing.


Originally posted 7-17-10

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