More Ctrl+F Editing (First Person, Present Tense Pt. 2)

On Tuesday I posted about my Ctrl+F editing technique and gave you the generic list I use for everything I write. Today you get the list specific to my current work-in-progress, Space Academy Rejects. I also posted last month about first person, present tense novels and my past issues with them as a reader. Spoiler alert: I got over it. This week, you get my issues with first person, present tense as a writer, which are very much ongoing.

I never intended to write a novel in first person, present tense, but when I sat down to word-vomit the first chapter of Space Academy Rejects, that’s what came out. I was so weirded out by it that I went back and rewrote the chapter twice more: once in first/past and once in third/past. I shared the versions with a few trusted writer friends to see if I was losing my mind, but they all agreed–the other versions lost something. The voice wasn’t quite the same. I decided to stick with it, and if I really hated it I could always go back and change the tense in revisions.

I’m just about done with my first round of revisions now, and I’ve decided to keep the first/present. I’ve also decided that this style of writing brings out TONS of bad habits that aren’t an issue for me when writing third/past. Below are the major issues I’ll be Ctrl-F’ing for this weekend. Here’s a hint: they mostly have to do with getting rid of the letter ‘I’. Here we go.

john with computer


Filtering phrases — I never do this in third person, so why why why do I do it so often in first person? Filtering phrases are sentence constructions based on sense verbs: I see, I hear, I smell, etc. By constructing the sentence in this way, I’m filtering all of the sensory detail through the narrator’s senses, rather than simply describing them. Compare:

I smell burgers.
The scent of burgers hangs heavy in the air.

This is a heavy-handed example I made up right this second, so it may be terrible, but you get the point. The first one might have some dry, comedic value in certain situations, but the second is more evocative. We don’t need the ‘I’. In first person narration nothing is described that isn’t being sensed or experienced by the narrator, so the ‘I’ is redundant. See more examples of rewritten filtering phrases on this excellent Publishing Crawl post. I actually find filtering phrases to be somewhat distancing; the ‘I’ puts you in the character’s brain rather than experiencing the world through their senses.

Thought verbs — This is really a specific form of filtering phrase, but I think it deserves its own line because it’s such a pervasive problem. Earlier this week I linked to Chuck Palaniuk’s article on this topic, and I’m going to do that again: right here. Click it, read it, follow it. He explains far better than I can. For your Ctrl+Fing purposes, hunt down all those instances of “I know, realize, notice, understand, wonder, remember, think” and any other word relating to your brain’s inner workings.

When you’re using Ctrl+F to catch these filtering and thought phrases, don’t forget the sneaky constructions that slip under the Ctrl+F radar: I can see, I can hear, I suddenly realized, etc.


In addition to my big picture first person/present tense bad habits, I also made a list of smaller bad habits unique to my current word-in-progress. I give you this brief list as an example of how you can use Ctrl+F editing for clarity and consistency in addition to correct grammar and style.

Earth – Why do I never capitalize our dear planet?

Bridge vs. Cabin vs. Cockpit – Pick one and stick with it, Self. What the even.

Hijab – One of my characters is a hijabi, and I believe I mention the hijab too often. I want to make sure I’m not othering her by pointing out her hijab more frequently than I mention prominent visual characteristics of other crew members.

Acronymns – I created several fictional organizations for this novel and often refer to them by acronymns. But. BUT. Did I ever actually define those acronyms? Ctrl+F to find out. 

A-jump – The terminology for rapid interstellar travel in this novel. I need to make sure the jump technology works the same way throughout the whole book. It’s entirely possible that I decided to alter the laws of physics at some point and promptly forgot about it.


That’s all for now, but I’m sure my critique partners and beta readers will give me many more red flags to search. Until then, I have plenty to keep me occupied!

 What are your bad habits, dear creatures? What red flags show up constantly in your work? Share them in the comments so we can all commiserate–and promptly Ctrl+F everything we’ve ever written.


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