Whose Story Is It? Self-Editing for Point of View

by | Mar 6, 2015

By Rachel E. Newman

When I first realized my passion for editing, I had long recognized my love for books and stories. During my adolescent years, I read voraciously; and by the time I decided to pursue editing, I believed I could recognize a well-written novel within a few sentences. Surely I would be a natural.

It was with great anticipation I began my first editing fiction course. I still remember that initial editing assignment. The paragraph had emotion; it had character; it sounded so good. And then comments from my more experienced classmates started rolling in. The excerpt had problems with repetitive language, shallow point of view, and unnecessary speaker attributions. Once it had been edited and portions of it rewritten, the finished product was head and shoulders above the original paragraph.

At that point I realized just how much I needed to learn. And the process of learning has been one of pure joy. Discovering how to communicate images and ideas in a way that makes the text disappear and the story come alive has opened a whole new avenue for connecting with people. And people, after all, is what I’m about.

That’s why I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned to help you polish your manuscript and save money. Although self-editing does not eliminate your need for a professional editor, it can cut down on the amount of time it takes to complete a professional edit which in turn could save you lots of money. Even the best editors will tell you that professional editors have their work professionally edited.

Our brains have the amazing capability to see what should be there instead of what is there. We might read over a sentence fifteen times and never realize it’s missing a the or contains a misspelled word. (I must have read that last sentence at least eight times before I realized I’d left the s off “times.”) That’s why it’s so important to have a fresh pair of eyes do that final edit.

There are many changes you can make, though, before you submit your manuscript to an editor. Keep in mind that while writing your first draft you shouldn’t concern yourself with editing. Editing and writing use different parts of your brain, and you don’t need the distraction editing will cause while you are emptying your creative genius onto your keyboard. But once you’ve got that first tornado of a story down, it’s time to start looking at it critically. What works and what doesn’t?

One of the first set of questions to ask yourself is:

  • Whose story is it?
  • Who is telling the story?
  • How far away from the reader is the story taking place?

The answers to these questions will help you determine the appropriate point of view in which to tell the story.

Omniscient

Omniscient point of view gives your readers the opportunity to experience the story through the eyes of someone outside of the story. This puts the reader at quite a distance from the characters. It’s as if the reader is hovering over the action and watching it take place far below. Although the story may “belong” to one of the characters, it is being told to your readers by a narrator. The narrator will have his own distinct voice that is separate from the voices of your characters.

If your story is written in omniscient point of view, you want to edit for consistency in voice. The words you use in the narrative should be those the narrator would choose, and they should be arranged in a way the narrator would say them. Dialogue, however, should be unique to your characters’ voices. If all your characters sound just like the narrator when they speak, you’ve got a problem and it’s time to start editing.

The advantages to omniscient point of view are that the narrator can address the reader directly and the reader can be privy to information the characters may not know.

The greatest disadvantage is that your readers will not experience the story as if they are in the story. They won’t get lost in the life of a character as if they were the ones living the adventure. Instead, they will be constantly reminded they are being told a story. If that is the goal of your novel, omniscient point of view may be the way to go.

First and Third Person

First and third person point of view are similar in that the readers accompany only one character at a time. These points of view put the readers right in the middle of the action, and if the point of view is deep enough, your readers will feel like they have become the character.

A book written in third person can take the reader into more than one character’s head when the scene changes or a new chapter begins. (It is extremely difficult to change the point of view character within the middle of a scene and often results in head-hopping. Don’t even try this until you have mastered one character at a time.)

If you are writing in first person point of view, you are generally stuck with that one character throughout the novel. One thing to watch for in this point of view is inappropriate narrative. It will be tempting to launch into back story or lengthy descriptions. You wouldn’t walk into your living room and conjure up images of the history of your couch, so don’t do a similar thing in your writing. It needs to be authentic, and that means you will have to include relevant historical details in a way that would naturally come to the character’s mind. If you add explanations simply for the benefit of your readers, it will remind your readers that they are reading a story instead of experiencing those events themselves. This disrupts the transparency of the words and interrupts the flow of the novel.

When editing these points of view, the question to keep in mind is, would the character know this information? For instance if your point of view character is Bill, and he just turned his back to Mary, Bill can no longer see what Mary is doing. Hence, don’t go into detail about Mary’s actions. Bill may, however, still be able to hear Mary behind him, so you are more than welcome to describe the noises being made.

One slippery problem to watch for is the motivation of characters other than your point of view character. If you’re telling the story from Jill’s point of view, don’t say, “Dan contemplated what Jill just said.” Think about it. From Jill’s point of view, there is no way she could know what is going on in Dan’s head. For all she knows, he could be planning what he’s going to eat for dinner. Instead of telling your reader what’s going on in Dan’s mind, tell them what Jill is observing (e.g., Dan looked at her then looked away. He shifted his weight back to his left leg. Had he understood what she’d meant?).

Final Thoughts

Taking the time to identify the appropriate point of view for your story and then editing (and rewriting if necessary) to bring consistency to your novel may be a lengthy endeavor. But you will be a better writer for it and save money at the same time.

For further reading on points of view, I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King and Wild Ink by Victoria Hanley. These books have practical and easy-to-understand sections on points of view.

Rachel Newman headshotRachel E. Newman is a freelance editor and indexer, and a certified paralegal. Join her May 1–2, 2015 in Austin, Texas at PENCON 2015, the only convention for Christian editors. Learn how to enter the editing field (you love editing so why not make some money at it?) or enhance an already established business. Network with other editors, and meet with the speakers one-on-one. For more information visit The Christian Pen.

 
Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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12 Comments

  1. Joanna Aislinn

    Great article! Succinct but loaded with useful information and reminders. I’ll be linking to this in an upcoming POV-related post of my own. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Rachel Newman

      Thanks for your comment, Joanna. I appreciate the feedback, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Thank you for sharing it with your readers.

      Reply
  2. jude urbanski

    Rachel, thanks for this well thought out article. A writer friend approaches writing/editing in this fashion. He writes one day and the next day he edits what he wrote before starting again. I tweeted!

    Reply
    • Rachel Newman

      Dear Jude,

      You are welcome! I’m so glad you found the article helpful. It sounds like your friend has a great system in place. Thank you for tweeting!

      Reply
  3. Rachel Newman

    Linda, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. I haven’t yet come across any characters who have accidentally come back from the future. It sounds like you may have been editing a first draft. I have found as I slap down that first draft, I often can’t remember certain details I’ve already written. That is why self-editing after the first draft can save a lot of money in the long run.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and for sharing the article with others. I enjoyed hearing about your editing experiences too!

    Reply
  4. Linda Austin

    Thank you, Rachel! You have put this so clearly and it is so important. Even in the little bit of editing I have done for others, I’ve seen switching of POV out of the blue and/or characters who are mind-readers or who have apparently come back from the future. I am sharing this!

    Reply
  5. Kristen Stieffel

    Another great book for POV is “Riveting Your Readers with Deep POV” By Jill Elizabeth Nelson. She does a great job of explaining how to use Deep POV (in either first or third) to get readers deeply engaged in the story.

    Reply
    • Rachel Newman

      Thanks for the suggestion, Kristen! It sounds like a great read.

      Reply
  6. Carol

    Rachel, POV is one of the aspects of craft that challenged me as a new writer. This is a good, easy to follow explanation. Wish I’d read it back when :)

    Reply
    • Rachel Newman

      Thank you for the comment, Carol. You are in good company. I have found that most of my new authors struggle with this too. It’s rewarding to see them “get it” and watch how their writing grows and improves.

      Reply
  7. Ernie Zelinski

    Great article. I really don’t know anything about editing, particularly for fiction. I share these quotations given that W. Somerset Maugham claimed, “The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.”

    “The relationship of editor to author is knife to throat.”
    — Unknown wise person

    “Many a man thinks he has become famous when he merely happened to meet an editor who was hard-up for material.”
    — Unknown wise person

    “Write drunk; edit sober.”
    — Ernest Hemingway

    Reply
    • Rachel Newman

      Ernie,

      Your quotes made me laugh out loud! Thanks for taking the time to read my article and bring some extra joy to my morning. I hope you have a very blessed Friday!

      Reply

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