Wednesday, October 20, 2021

High School Writing Tip Sheets - Point of View

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For the past few years I have been teaching high school writing in our homeschool tutorial co-op. Having seen several groups of students through the courses, I've noticed some issues and questions coming up regularly. I hope these Tip Sheets will be helpful to my students, their parents, and perhaps to other students and parent/teachers as well.


Most students have mastered the differences between first person, second person, and third person pronouns in writing, but choosing the correct style for a writing assignment might pose some challenges. When writing fiction, students tend to fall into the pattern that is most comfortable, but are not consistent throughout the story. And when writing non-fiction, many students have trouble sticking to Third Person.

Four Basic Point of View Styles

First Person - personal pronouns I, me, my, mine (we, us, our, ours) 
Second Person - personal pronouns you, your, yours
Third Person Limited  - personal pronouns he, she, him, her, his, hers (they, them, theirs)
Third Person Omniscient

The Basic Rule

There are four basic Point of View types, and you choose which to use based on the type of writing you're doing. For fiction writing, you may choose any of these or their variations, depending on your preference and the needs of your story. For non-fiction writing, your choice will be more limited, as it will be dictated by the purpose of the piece you're writing and the intended audience. In any writing, once you've chosen your Point of View, be consistent. Choose the point of view and stick to it. That means making the pronouns match too. Don't start out in First Person and switch to Second Person partway through. Don't tell your story in  Third Person except for a few random sentences in First Person. 

When Writing Fiction

You have the most freedom to choose the point of view style when you are writing fiction. Your choice will be based on the kind of story you want to tell, your preference and what comes naturally to you as you write, and what works best to tell the story. 

Consider these aspects: Whose story is it? Would it be more interesting told from one point of view rather than another? How will information outside of the viewpoint character's knowledge be shared?

Establish the point of view very early in the story. If you're switching viewpoint characters (Third Person Multiple Vision), make sure there's a visual break when you switch and that you quickly establish who is taking over as viewpoint character.

Unless you're writing in Third Person Omniscient, you must limit the viewpoint. In other words, what other characters are thinking or feeling must somehow be filtered or interpreted by the viewpoint character and narrator. 

The four basic point of view types can be refined into some additional choices. Here they are, along with how each is commonly used:

First Person is usually the protagonist telling his own story, but if it's a secondary character telling the story (like Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories), it's called First Person Peripheral. The character telling the story might also be an Unreliable Narrator. In this style, what the first person narrator says is different from what the reader can figure out is true. That unreliable narrator might be deceptive or untruthful - for instance, if it's the antagonist or villain's point of view - or perhaps just not catching on to the real meanings of other character's actions. Another type of First Person is the Epistolary, in which the story is told in a series of letters or journal entries (think Bram Stoker's Dracula). First Person Plural is a very unusual style, in which everything is narrated as though happening to a whole group and the individual telling the story is never identified.

In Second Person stories, the narrator tells what "you" do and say. It's usually in present tense as well. This is commonly seen in fan fiction stories, and in 'choose your own adventure' style stories. It's best for short stories.

The Third Person narrator is usually Third Person Single Vision, which means that the narrator chooses one viewpoint character to focus on and everything is filtered through that character's thoughts and reactions. The narrator can tell the reader what that character is thinking and feeling, but can't get inside any other character's head. In Third Person Omniscient, the narrator can get inside the heads of all the characters. This style was used in many of the classics, but is less often used in more contemporary writing. You may want to switch from one viewpoint character to another, and this is called Third Person Multiple Vision. So one character would be the viewpoint character for a chapter or scene, then there would be a visual break such as a new chapter or a row of asterisks to indicate a change, and then the viewpoint would shift to a different character. 

Point-of-view is a matter that readers rarely pay attention to, yet it's one of the most important story decisions an author makes. ~Therese Fowler

When Writing Non-Fiction

When writing non-fiction, usually the point of view is based on the purpose for your writing and the intended audience. When writing in a casual voice or tone in a descriptive essay, for example, First Person or Second Person would be appropriate. However, more formal writing generally calls for Third Person to keep it objective.

First Person is appropriate for a memoir or autobiography, or for personal experience essays. Second Person can be used for instructional or advice essays, or for process writing (the how-to essay). Sometimes descriptive or personal experience essays can be in Second Person as well.

Most expository and persuasive writing is in Third Person and maintains a more objective and formal tone. When writing a formal essay such as a logical appeal or a research paper, it's very important to maintain the objectivity of Third Person and not slip into using second person pronouns or making first person statements.

That is the strangest thing about the world: how it looks so different from every point of view. ~Lauren Oliver
As usual, proofreading is an indispensable step! Watch for inconsistencies when proofreading your story or essay, especially in the pronouns used.

High School Writing Tips Sheets - Proofreading Properly

Other helpful articles on the web:

Some of this article is based on information in the wonderful textbook Writing Fiction [In High School] from Writing with Sharon Watson. This textbook is the one I've taught from in the co-op for several years, and I highly recommend it.

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