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This post is part of our special series that will unpack the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. Today is the second in a three-part series on the mechanics of writing. In case you missed them, here are links to part one and part two. Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.
In the current blog series, I’m writing about the various metrics by which Word Alive Press evaluates books submitted to the annual Braun Book Awards. When we look at a new submission, a lot goes into the process of deciding whether a book should be short-listed.
In the last two posts, we covered a range of issues that pertain to mastering the mechanics of the English language. While mechanics only account for one of our judge’s many metrics, however, it is the one that creates the first impression. Which is why authors must work hard to ensure they do everything they can to score well in this category.
Previously we’ve covered punctuation and the parts of speech. Today, let’s kick off a discussion about point of view
Point of view is a subject of foundational importance when writing a book. Basically, it requires you to consider and answer a key question: from whose perspective am I writing? There are three common answers: first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited.
This may be a bit different from the three you’re used to seeing—first person, second person, and third person. For all practical purposes, second person isn’t much used. It’s rare, a fun curiosity, but you’re not likely to write in it.
If you’re working on an autobiography, the answer is simple. You’ll write in the first person, and all the action will be told from your own perspective. “I went to church last Sunday. During the sermon, it felt like the pastor was speaking directly to me.” Many works of fiction are also told in the first person. It has been said that one advantage of first person is that it makes it easier for readers to relate to—and cheer for—the main character.
In third person, your point of view will be the characters themselves. There are two versions of this—omniscient or limited. If you’re writing third person omniscient, it means you as the writer are acting as a God-like narrator, able to peer into the thoughts of any and all characters in the story. You jump around between the characters as often as you want, depending on whose perspective is most useful at any given moment to advance the plot.
With third person omniscient, there’s no impediment to writing something like this: “Evan was hungry and wanted to go out for pizza. Luckily, his friend Amy was already forming a mental image of a pizza dripping with cheese and pepperoni.” Both characters’ perspectives can fit into the scene.
In third person limited, you can’t jump around like this—you have to make a firm decision about which character the scene is being told from, and then stick to it and remain absolutely consistent. You can reveal that Evan was hungry and wanted to go out for pizza, but the only way for Evan to find out about what Amy thinks about dinner plan would be for her to tell him.
Forcing the story to be confined to a character’s point of view requires more discipline, but it also leads to some fantastic storytelling opportunities. By limiting what your characters see, hear, and feel in this manner, by extension you also place limits on what the reader
can see, hear, and feel, and thus your story has a greater capacity to generate suspense.
For what it’s worth, third person limited has been en vogue for the last several decades, and it’s the most common right now. This wasn’t always the case. Books from the 1980s and earlier were much more likely to have an omniscient point of view.
Now that you’ve given the point of view question serious consideration and decided how to want to approach your story, you face another critical decision: will your story be written in past tense or present tense?
An argument could be made for both styles—past tense is more traditional, and present tense is more immediate—but whatever you settle on, one thing is key: be consistent. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to totally, 100% consistent in your choice of tense. Tense errors can be time-consuming and frustrating to correct, and they will throw a reader out of your story faster than almost anything else.
In the last three posts, I’ve offered up a lot of food for thought, and it’s possible that some of it has been a bit overwhelming. Indeed, I’ve hardly covered even the essentials. For example, your writing will be greatly improved by studying passive voice
and understanding why it is so often avoided.
If your relationship with English grammar has been contentious, a common experience for so many people, then don’t despair: working with an editor can go a long way towards smoothing out an otherwise bumpy road.