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JLeslie's avatar

Can both first person and third person be used in an autobiography?

Asked by JLeslie (65334points) February 1st, 2022
10 responses
“Great Question” (1points)

A friend asked me to edit her book. I’m far from being a profesional editor, but she has a ton of corrections needed, so I’m kind of the first to fix obvious things. Some of it is as simple as she has a space before a period or spelling mistakes.

I noticed she is switching between first person and third. Is it ok to use first person for her adult life, and third when she talks about her childhood?

Her childhood had a lot of trauma, so the third person does drive home a feeling of childhood truly being a separate life from her life as an adult.

Thanks in advance for your help.

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janbb's avatar

It might be used effectively by a really skillful author but it sounds like your friend is a novice so I would steer her away from that idea. Generally it would not be used.

JLeslie's avatar

@janbb I’m just on page five and see she is oscillating between the two, so if it is allowed I think it might be easier to leave it in that format.

I’m not sure yet if she did write the entire novel in exactly that manner, meaning if she naturally used third person for childhood throughout and first person for adulthood, or if the whole book is messy without consistency.

canidmajor's avatar

Is it a novel or an autobiography? That would make a difference in the acceptability of this technique. Although, as @janbb said, for a debut work, it is unlikely that she has the skill to carry it off.

If it is intended for sale, she would be well advised to hire a professional editor who could do the work much more quickly than a novice, especially one who prefers not to read book-length material. If she is planning to self-publish, that is especially important.

chyna's avatar

It’s extremely hard for a professional writer to carry off switching back and forth from first person to third person. I don’t think a new writer can do this and be consistent and coherent.
I also think the friend needs a professional to help with the book as your friendship could be in jeopardy if she takes offense at any of your suggestions.

elbanditoroso's avatar

As a fervent reader, I prefer third person to first person in general. I doubt I would like the example that you are describing. I especially dislike writing where a chapter is “his point of view” and the next chapter “Her point of view” on the same plot points.

I’m always wary of self=published books… I wonder of many of them are simply cathartic and never meant to be read.

Patty_Melt's avatar

It is something that many people experience in real life. It is noticable when looking through old photographs.
As we grow, and mature, we become someone new. We aren’t that person anymore.

It sounds like a good way to sort the distant past, from the more recent past. Personally, I would go crazy trying to write that way, but reading someone else’s story that way would convey the story smoothly back and forth.
For some people, a traumatic experience separates “me” from “her”, so they need the distinction.
I think you should note the small issues, and leave that until you have read the whole thing. It could be the story explains itself later.

JLeslie's avatar

It’s an autobiography.

It’s not really intended for sale, although I think she is considering self publishing it. It’s mostly for her children and grandchildren.

She knows I’m not an editor, and I think she is willing to pay an editor.

She just wanted me to read it and correct it. Some mistakes are very obviously. I’m not sure if she’s just bad at typing or what. Her stream of thought is fine though.

Her father came to America as a young child with his mother and siblings, and he was sick when they were entering the country and immigration made his mother choose to send him back alone or all of them go back. It was almost like a Sophie’s choice, and she sent him back. Eventually, many years later he came back to the US. Skipping forward, he tried to kill my friend when she was a child.

It’s an immigrant story and a self healing story, and I don’t know what else, because I only know some of her life story, and not from the book, I know that because she has told me.

canidmajor's avatar

Well, if she is doing it for her own gratification, obviously she can do whatever she wants with it, but if she is hoping it will be coherent to others of future generations, a chronicle of her family is a good idea, but third person throughout would be more effective and enduring.

janbb's avatar

@canidmajor Or I would say probably first person if it is an autobiography?

I would suggest talking to the writer and asking if she intended the switch or wants it corrected.

JLeslie's avatar

Typo above: I should have written obvious not obviously.

I sent her an email this morning and she just responded to me about the 1st and 3rd person. She said she is going to now be more aware of that when she rereads what she wrote.

I think she just wrote out her thoughts without much worry about grammar, just to get it all on paper.

A few friends of mine who are authors (money making authors) do that. They don’t worry about perfection at all on first drafts. Even when referencing something historical they go back later and do the research to confirm, because breaking their train of thought is too disruptive They pay professional editors.

I’m thinking maybe my girlfriend writing the autobiography might have been in the same mode.

@janbb I also thought first person since it is an autobiography, but I’ve read very few autobiographies so I didn’t have a strong opinion nor did I feel like I could speak with any authority on what is more common or more correct.

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