Point of view is something that every fiction writer must make a conscious choice about and only some nonfiction writers (these include writers of nonfiction books, blogs, newsletters, etc.) pause to consider. Meanwhile, readers, for the most part, are only aware of point of view when it calls attention to itself. In nonfiction, unless you’re pausing to consider your choice of point of view (see example below), if your choice of perspective calls attention to itself, something has probably gone wrong. This post is going to help you avoid that!
So that what follows isn’t confusing, a few very short definitions:
- First person: I or We
- Second person: You
- Third person: he, she, it, they
Point of view calling attention to itself
I drafted this post in a café with my husband, who was reading Exteriors by Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie; the book is a collection of excerpts taken from her journals). He knew I was writing about point of view, so he showed me her reflection on her own choice of point of view immediately following her reminiscence about reading her in horoscope in Marie-Claire that she would meet a “wonderful man” that day and then “wonder[ing] whether each man I spoke to was the one they meant.” In the following paragraph, she goes on to think about that phrasing:
(By choosing to write in the first person, I am laying myself open to criticism, which would not have been the case had I written “she wondered if each man she spoke to was the one they meant.” The third-person – he/she – is always somebody else, free to do whatever they choose. “I” refers to oneself, the reader, and it is inconceivable, or unthinkable, for me to read my own horoscope and behave like some mushy schoolgirl. ‘I’ shames the reader.) (page 18)
Ernaux encloses the entire paragraph in parentheses. This enclosure seems to act as a protective barrier against the expected criticism she feels she has left herself open to. We, as readers, are left to draw our own conclusions about who might criticise her and for what, or why “‘I’ shames the reader”, as this excerpt is the last of the entries from 1985.
If I were teaching this text in an English literature seminar, we’d probably spend an hour or more unpacking the questions raised by Ernaux’s parenthetical comment. But I’m not, so I won’t. For our purposes, I just want to emphasise her point that by using “I” she doesn’t allow any distance between herself and the thoughts described in the reminiscence, hence her feeling of vulnerability.
Also, when she says that “‘I’ refers to … the reader … shames the reader”, she could seem to be conflating first- and second-person points of view – but I think she’s really making the point that using first person makes the text feel closer and more intimate to the reader. We’ll come back to this point shortly.
As I said above, fiction writers must choose a point of view. Why? Because which point of view they choose determines how much information the narrator has about the story – a first-person narrator cannot know what another character is thinking, for example. So it’s a choice they have to make. Some writers choose to call attention to these choices.
First and third person
For example, Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House has two narrators – an unnamed third-person narrator, and Esther Summers, a first-person narrator. Readers of the novel mainly notice point of view when the narrative switches from one to the other. For Dickens, using the two points of view makes it possible to tell the story in two very different ways: one is relatively detached, while the other is deeply personal. Other novels, like Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone or Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, switch between two or more first-person narrators.
Another way writers call attention to point of view is by choosing an unusual perspective, like Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, which is in second person. A book and film club I’m in read that novel a few months ago. Most of the participants found the narrative odd or jarring because the narrator keeps referring to “you”:
You lost her gaze for a moment and your breath quickened, as when a dropped call across a distance gains unexpected gravity. You would soon learn that love made you worry, but it also made you beautiful. Love made you Black, as in, you were most coloured when in her presence. It was not a cause for concern; one must rejoice! You could be yourselves. (page 1)
As you can see in this excerpt, taken from the prologue, the use of second-person narrative means that the reader must see the story from the point of view of a Black man (it’s not obvious from the quotation that the main character is male, but that becomes clear as the novel goes on).
By writing this novel in second person, Nelson foregrounds the experience of a Black character. This choice of point of view makes an important socio-political point. If you’re old enough (or your teachers were), you likely had English teachers who treated the experiences of characters like Tom Sawyer or Hamlet as “universal” – I, however, would argue that there is nothing normal or universal about white, male experience. Nelson’s choice of using second person in his novel makes the point more strongly than the more common first- or third-person points of view precisely because the point of view calls attention to itself and, crucially, it doesn’t allow any distance between the reader and the main character, a Black man living in twenty-first century London.
Points of view in your writing
Point of view sets the tone of a text. In writing nonfiction, you can switch from one point of view to another. I definitely do this.
Did you notice what I did in the previous paragraph? The first sentence is in third person, the second is in second person, and the third is in first person.
Broadly speaking, third-person point of view is more objective, while first and second person are more intimate or personable. As nonfiction writers, we have different motivations for choosing particular points of view.
First person – I/We
Using first person makes sense for a lot of the writing you do for your business – you’re writing because you want your audience to get to know and connect with you, the best way to do that is with your voice. If you’re a solopreneur, you’ll usually use I. If you’re writing on behalf of a partnership or larger group or company, first person plural will be your norm – in such cases, the use of we won’t include the reader because the pronoun we refers to multiple writers.
A note on first person plural – we
Solo writers sometimes use first person plural when they want to include the reader in what they’re saying – see the last sentence of the previous section: “As nonfiction writers, we have different motivations for choosing particular points of view”. My use of we draws you, the reader (a fellow nonfiction writer), into my point. Drawing the reader in like this is a powerful rhetorical tool – that’s why you see it so often in advertising and in political speeches. However, if you don’t want to annoy your reader, use it sparingly.
Speaking of annoying uses of first person plural – please, for the love of all the things, refrain from adopting the condescending tone people too often take when talking to or about children, the elderly, or animals. I recently overheard this exchange between my mum and the veterinarian caring for my parents’ cat, Giovanni, who had to stay overnight:
Mum: How is Giovanni today?
Vet: We had a little to eat this morning and we seem a bit stronger.
Really? We ate and we are stronger? My mum only asked about the cat, not the vet. In case you can’t hear the inherent condescension in this use of first person plural, revisit the brilliant sitcom Waiting for God (1990 to 1994). Diana Trent rarely passes on the opportunity to grumble at Jane when she cheerfully asks Diana how “we” are doing today. As Ms Trent points out, she is only one.
As the example from Open Waters makes clear, using second person in fiction can be jarring and overtly political. In nonfiction, this is usually not the case.
The most common use of second person point of view in nonfiction is in instructions: first you do this, then you do that. Using second person this way puts the reader in the centre of the text, which is exactly where they expect to be when reading an instructional text.
Third person point of view is commonly used in nonfiction when the writer wants to be objective. This is why third person is favoured by fields such as science, crime, and medicine.
For your writing as a business owner, the main thing to watch out for when using third person is avoiding the overly detached tone you often find in those fields. For example, a scientist writing up a report on a recent experiment might start by saying, “First, the researchers sterilised the equipment.” When you’re reading the text, you know that the writer is one of the people who sterilised that equipment, but the use of the researchers instead of we makes the text feel more detached and objective – as though the action is being described by someone completely separate from it.
This kind of detachment is expected in some fields, but not in your writing about your business. As a business owner, most of your writing will seek to connect with your readers – you can’t do that if you’re putting distance between you and your text using phrases like the author or the writer when you mean I.
So if you were told at school to never use I in your writing (as I was), this is your permission to ignore your teachers’ prescriptive rules – I’m sure they had a good reason for them at the time, but they no longer serve you.
Some help to make your writing easier
If reading all of this has you wondering about your own use of point of view, remember that if you simply write like you speak (so long as you don’t speak like the veterinarian treating Giovanni), you can’t go far wrong. This is why I spend so much time working with my clients to get to know their readers.
When you really know your reader, writing feels like talking to an old friend – I’d bet you’ve never worried about point of view when you do that!