The Ten Commandments of Writing

3. Remember to Keep Your Point of View Consistent

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The third commandment of writing follows.

3. Remember to Keep Your Point of View Consistent.

Consider the following sentence: “If you really want to learn how to write, a good writer should practice like I do.”

Did you find that sentence confusing? You probably did because the sentence includes three different points of view rather than one consistent point of view. Under those circumstances, confusion is inevitable. As a writer, therefore, you want to make sure that you don’t confuse your readers. Before you begin any writing task, you should decide upon your point of view, and you should stick to it.

Point of view is generally defined as the way in which you tell a story. The three general options are referred to as first person, second person, and third person. Here’s an overview of each.

First Person. The first-person point of view is the one you use most often in normal conversation or in most autobiographical essays. When you get home at the end of the day, for instance, and you begin to tell others about your experiences, or you begin to write in your journal, you’re using the first-person point of view. When you write in the first person, you will use the following pronouns: I and we, me and us, my and our, and mine and ours. Here’s an example: “I got pulled over for speeding on my way to school. We all failed our quiz in math class. Then, my friends and I shared a pizza for lunch.”

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

This point of view is appropriate whenever you are speaking or writing about your life. If an instructor asks you to introduce yourself in writing, or if you must describe an emotional moment that you will never forget, the first-person point of view is perfect.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Russell Baker uses the first person in his essay called “Learning to Write.” In this essay, Baker describes a turning point in his life when a high-school English teacher read Baker’s essay aloud to the class: “I did my best to avoid showing pleasure, but what I was feeling was pure ecstasy at this startling demonstration that my words had the power to make people laugh. In the eleventh grade, at the eleventh hour, as it were, I had discovered a calling. It was the happiest moment of my entire school career.”

Second Person. Of the three points of view, the second person is used least often. However, that doesn’t mean it’s any less important. The second-person point of view is generally used when you want to teach someone how to do something (this essay is written in second person) or when you want to give directions to a specific location. With the second-person point of view, you will use the pronouns “you, your, and yours.”

Image for post
Image for post
“A route marked on a map to Gypsum” by Stephen Monroe on Unsplash

If you’re having a party at your house, for instance, and you want to tell your friends how to get there, you might say or write the following: “You should drive north on 87, and get off at Exit 8. Then, you should turn left onto Crescent Road, and look for Lapp Road on your right. Turn right on Lapp, and go to the third house on the right.”

With this point of view, you can sometimes leave out the pronoun “you” and go straight to the verbs because the word “you” is understood. You can see this in the last sentence in the example above: “Turn right on Lapp, and go to the third house on the right.”

Author Garrison Keillor uses the second person in his teaching essay entitled “How to Write a Personal Letter”: “Sit for a few minutes with the blank sheet of paper in front of you, and meditate on the person you will write to; let your friend come to mind until you can almost see her or him in the room with you. Remember the last time you saw each other and how your friend looked and what you said and what perhaps was unsaid between you, and when your friend becomes real to you, start to write.”

Third Person. You typically use the third-person point of view when you speak or write about others. When you write in the third person, you will use some of the following pronouns: he, she, it, they, him, her, them, his, her, its, and their. You might describe your instructor, for instance, in this way: “He’s pretty tall, he wears glasses, his hair is gray, and his jokes are bad.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Woman with short hair and glasses looking for a book in the shelves of a library in Charlotte” by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Generally speaking, you will use the third person in formal writing — such as term papers — or whenever you want to focus more on the subject of the essay and less on your own thoughts or opinions concerning the subject.

In his essay entitled “Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts,” Civil War historian Bruce Catton uses the third person to describe generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee: “They were two strong men, these oddly different generals, and they represented the strengths of two conflicting currents that, through them, had come into final collision.”

Is it possible to state your personal opinion while writing in the third person? Yes. Just don’t make the mistake of changing your point of view. After writing an entire essay in third person, for example, you might be tempted to switch to the first person in your conclusion and write, “I definitely think we should dredge the Hudson River.” However, you should really stick with the third-person point of view by writing “The Hudson River should be dredged” or “The government should dredge the Hudson River.”

Do the three points of view ever overlap? Yes, they do, especially when you’re writing about yourself (first) and about others (third) or when you’re trying to teach someone (second), but you’re also drawing on your own experience (first) in the teaching process. When those overlaps occur, just make sure they do so because you want them to occur and not because you weren’t paying attention to your point of view.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store