November 12

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How to Think About POV and Instantly Write Better Nonfiction

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

November 12, 2020

memoir, nonfiction, Writing, writing mistakes, writing skills, writing tips

Regardless of what nonfiction genre you're writing, it's a story. And everything in your story — every story — is presented through a point of view (POV). 

Two Meanings of POV

1. Narrator’s position when describing events 

Imagine you are holding a camera and preparing to take a picture. You bring the viewfinder up to your eye. What you see in that viewfinder is your point of view. 

When you’re pointing your camera in one direction and zoomed in, you would describe only that which is visible within the frame. 

If you zoom out, there is more to see and describe, but you see less intimate detail. Attach your wide-angle lens, and you see even more of the big picture, and still less of the intimate detail.

2. Opinion

What you think about a subject and how you present what you think about it, when you’re talking with a friend or arguing with a colleague, is a viewpoint. From this perspective, there can be multiple points of view on any given subject.

As a journalist, I needed to keep my writing neutral, meaning without editorial bias, while including as many perspectives as necessary on the core issue of the story to help the reader come to their own point of view.

Depending on what your nonfiction book is about, this ‘editorial neutrality’ POV may or may not play a role.

Here, we're mainly concerned with the narrator's position when describing events. 

About POV: The Four Types

With narrative POV, we’re considering whose story this is, along with whether to tell the story in first person (I), second person (you), or third person (he, she, it) POV.  And there are two variations of third person POV. 

  • First person. You are in the story, describing the things that happened to you. I am telling the story. In memoir, first person POV is most common. It’s also common in fiction. Because the story details are filtered through a single person’s unique POV, the POV is naturally biased and incomplete. We call this limited: the narrator can’t know or share all perspectives on the story. It’s their story, not necessarily the story.  
  • Second person. Written one-to-one, telling the story to you. This POV is effective in many types of nonfiction, for example: how-to, self-help, or business. It brings a personal, intimate experience to the reader. Second person POV is rare in fiction.
  • Third person, limited. You’ll find the majority of commercial fiction in third person POV: the story is about he or she or they. The narrator is outside the action describing what’s going on for a character. 
  • Third person, omniscient. The narrator is still outside the action, and the story is still about he or she or they, but the narrator has full access to the thoughts and experiences of all characters in the story.

The Biggest POV No-No 

Mixing up POV too often! It is by far best and safest to choose one POV and stick with it. If you don’t, you risk losing your reader’s trust and eroding the framework of your narrative.

I've seen newbie authors mixing up POV within the same paragraph, even the same sentence. This frequent so-called head-hopping makes me dizzy and isn't going to sit well with readers, either.

There are writers who play with POV, but they are highly skilled and choose to mix up POV for strategic, purposeful reasons. They certainly don't do it within a sentence or paragraph. If you want to explore this issue further here is a great blog article I found that describes this nicely.

If you do carefully decide to write your nonfiction including more than one POV, be sure to stick to one POV per scene. Or even better, one POV per chapter. 

POV in Memoir

Because it’s your memoir, and its about your (inner) transformational journey, readers expect to your memoir to be written in first-person. 

While your memoir shines light on your inner metamorphosis and the resulting change in how you see the world, as you write about each event, and each scene within the event, aim only to describe the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and experiences as they were at the time. 

The danger with the first person POV you’ll almost certainly employ for your memoir is the temptation to spend too much time in your head, describing only your thoughts and feelings in each situation. Remember: it’s not what we say, it’s what we do that counts.

No question, there's a lot of learn about point of view. When you get it right, you'll write better nonfiction.

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