What’s your point — of view?

Sure, this one has a punny title, but I couldn’t resist.  While the title may be punny (I won’t go as far as to say funny!), the topic is quite serious.  Changes in viewpoint are a pet peeve of mine and a mistake that many beginning writers can easily make without realizing it.

Before we can talk about changing viewpoint, we must first talk about the types of viewpoint out there.

  • First person: This is an article or story written from one person’s point of view.  This blog is written in first person.  First person uses pronouns like “I,” “me,” “mine,” etc.  While first person is frequently used in casual writing, it is almost never used in news reporting.  In my years of writing professionally, I have only written from first person fewer than 10 times.  For articles, first person should generally only be used if the writer is an authority on the topic or if the writer is describing a situation or event the way he experienced it.
  • Second person: This viewpoint is often overlooked.  Second person viewpoint addresses the reader directly.  Second person uses pronouns like “you” and “your.”  Of all the viewpoints, it can be most lenient and sometimes used in conjunction with first or third person, but that should be done sparingly.  Second person is most often found in how-to articles.  The trick with it is to avoid becoming preachy or condescending to the reader.
  • Third person: This viewpoint does not involve the writer or the reader at all.  Third person pronouns include “he,” “she,” “they,” etc.  This is the most common viewpoint for news articles and is the viewpoint I use most of the time in my work for magazines, newspapers and even businesses.

Understanding the different viewpoints is crucial to use them correctly.  Most important is to NOT combine more than one viewpoint in the same article.  I don’t think I can preach consistency in writing enough.  In teaching, I tell my students that I’d rather them be consistently wrong in their article than to alternate back and forth.

Changes in viewpoint can sometimes slip into writing.  Most of the time with articles, readers really don’t care about the writer’s perspective.  First person is seldom used for that very reason.  If first person is used, then it should be used consistently, not just in a lead and forgotten about.  A writer should never interject himself in the article without a compelling reason to do so.

Second person can sometimes be used in a lead to draw a reader in and then switch to third person for the rest of the article, but this should be done sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.  One common lead is reader commonality, which starts with something like: “Don’t you just hate when X happens?”  This can work, but it isn’t the strongest type of lead and certainly shouldn’t be overdone.  Be aware that indirect commands count as second person as well (this sentence is an example).  These are sentences that address the reader directly and give a command without using the pronoun “you.”

Third person is the best viewpoint for new writers.  And it’s the most common for news articles in general.

Since changes in viewpoint can slip into articles, editing for viewpoint is important.  When I edit my work, I look at everything: grammar, punctuation, style, viewpoint, flow, etc.  Look for direct commands that slip into second person.  Look for spots where the writer has been drawn in to the story directly.  Ask other people to read the artilce and give their feedback on viewpoint — whatever it takes.   Don’t be a viewpoint switcher!

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