How NOT to Write: Problematic points of view

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!


“Point of view” (POV) is a powerful thing.  It obviously determines how we interact with the world around us, and how other people approach us.  It is a basic part of all knowledge and experience.  Even the great sage Obi-wan Kenobi observed to Luke Skywalker that much of what we believe about the world “depend[s] greatly on our own point of view.”  While I strong disagree with Old Ben about our POV determining truth, I agree that is too important to be overlooked.  It is ironic then that one of the most common problems I see in my courses deals with authorial POV.

POV would seem to be a simple thing in the academic context.  Generally, an author writes from his or her own perspective and that is that.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the goal of formal, academic prose is to communicate ideas as clearly and accurately as possible.  So, the author speaks to his or her audience, coaxing them down an intellectual path to (hopefully) reach the intended conclusion.  Good academic writers can get most people from point A to point B.  The best can make them enjoy the trip.  So what problem could there be?

It comes when we forget to read from someone else’s perspective.  What makes perfect sense to us doesn’t always seem so clear to someone else.  Take the following examples*, if you will:

  • (On a World War II poster) Save soap and waste paper!–So how much paper should we throw away, on average?
  • People across the country were shocked when Teddy Roosevelt had an African American for dinner.–I can see the book title now:  The Presidential Cannibal
  • The ship was christened by Mrs. Coolidge.  The lines of her bottom were admired by an applauding crowd.–I imagine that would provoke her husband and our 30th president, “Silent Cal” into a few choice words.
Right.  What all these examples have in common is the fact that whoever wrote them forgot to look at what he/she had written from the perspective of the reader as well as from that of the author.  After all, I’m sure that the author knew that the “her” in that last example referred to the ship and not Mrs. Coolidge.  Can’t everyone else see that?!

No, they can’t.  They can only see what we put on the page, and they will read into it the most obvious interpretation they can (and even a few that they can’t).

The only way we can hope to prevent this is to read our work from as many different angles as possible.  Leave time between drafts to relax and pursue other interests.  This lets your brain “reset” itself, and you’ll be better able to see what you actually put on the page…as opposed to what you wanted to put there and so now expect to see.

In fiction, POV is incredibly useful.  If you keep the distinction between author and reader in mind, you can have all sorts of fun manipulating your audience and make them like it.  I myself am only just now beginning to play around with it on my current project–a  series of first person novellas telling how a diverse group of people all arrive at the same place.    Whatever you might think of his later movies, M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense is a brilliant POV thriller where they audience does not even realize it has been tricked until the very end.  Winton’s POV in 1984 is another brilliant example.

When not mining them for ideas, we can apply the same advice on POVs to our fiction that I make my students apply to their formal prose.  It is never enough to stop with just the author’s POV.  The first step is to go beyond and anticipate the reader’s.  The next (and perhaps the most fruitful) is to get to know your reader so well that you can control their POV.  When you can do both at once, the possibilities are endless.

Next Week…a fresh perspective from July’s featured author on Fridays!  I’ll be around in my Sunday feature, “Meditations with C. S. Lewis,” and I’ll be back on Fridays in August.  Here’s hoping I can think of something new by then….


*These aren’t original to me.  I believe I first read them in David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, though I’m sure they weren’t original to him either.

More in the How NOT to Write series: