Writing Tip: As for the Word “As”…

Power of Words

A writer friend recently posted a question about avoiding the word “as.” An editor told her to avoid it, but she didn’t know why. Another author commented that she’d been told to use “while” or “when” instead of “as.”

While I’ve never been told to avoid “as” by any editor, I do understand the sentiment. When we’re told to avoid words, it’s usually because the use of such words allow for “lazy” constructions.

Periodic Sentences

One reason to avoid “as” could be that it’s used to construct periodic sentences. These are sentences that begin with one (or more) dependent clauses, making the reader wait until the last part of the sentence to see what the sentence is about. Here is an example of a periodic sentence:

As the wind began to blow, as the trees began to sway, and as the land began to tremble, the house toppled down.

We don’t know until the end of the sentence that the house toppled down. Obviously, sentences can be constructed like this for dramatic effect, and periodic sentences are poetic and effective to that end. But for the ordinary sentence meant only to communicate information, periodic sentences can become tiresome for the reader if used too much.

Here is an example:

As he crossed the garden, the sun began to shine.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence, but the use of “as” allows the writer to be unspecific. There are two parts to the sentence: crossing the garden and the sun shining. The sentence is Hemingway-esque in its level of detail. It’s a style choice. But for an editor looking for the writer to make each sentence work harder, removing the “as” may force the sentence to be more specific. How about:

He skipped through the garden, relishing in the sun.

Removing “as” forces the reader to consider what else is important about the sentence. In the original sentence, “as” becomes the important factor, tying in the fact that crossing the garden and the sun shining are happening simultaneously. Most often, the concurrent nature of the clauses is not the most important aspect of the sentence. If it’s not, removing “as” may help the writer clarify.

Direct Comparisons

Remember high school English? “As” is an indirect comparison (simile) as opposed to a direct comparison (metaphor). For many writers, similes are easier to write.

Love is like…a red, red rose.

This smelly sneaker is as rotten as a fish.

Metaphors often allow for more complexity than similes.

Love is an unforgiving mistress.

This smelly sneaker is a petri dish.

Once again, the use of the word “as” removes us one step from the sentence. Take a look at this sentence:

The ocean stilled for a moment as though respectful of the ashes that had just been scattered.

Removing the “as” would force the writer to re-arrange the sentence, perhaps adding personification (The ocean stilled for a moment, respecting the ashes scattered on its surface.) One could argue that personifying the ocean is a stronger way to word the sentence. It’s less obvious than the writer or narrator TELLING us why the ocean is still; rather, we’re being SHOWN, seeing that even nature sympathizes with the death (ashes) in this scene.

In short, it’s not the word “as” that’s offensive in and of itself, but it’s the fact that “as” lets writers get away with constructions that could be more strongly worded or stated otherwise.

“As” with any good writing, it’s about using techniques intentionally and for a purpose rather than taking the easy way out. Readers can sense laziness, and they appreciate diligence.

Writing Tip: Indirect Characterization

Power of WordsIndirect characterization is a technique used to develop characters in which the author provides clues that allow the reader to experience a character in more depth. Indirect characterization is showing rather than telling. Instead of saying, “John walked to his seat. He was tired,” I would provide clues that communicate the same idea, but in a way that would help readers figure it out on their own. I might write, “John shuffled through the door a moment before the bell. He yawned as he took his seat and rubbed his eyes, squinting up at the clock. Red pillow lines still marked his face, and his disheveled hair looked like he’d run his fingers through it maybe once.” In this example, I never told you John was tired. But you can probably assume it—from the yawns, the bed-head, the shuffling.

We could make the above scene even more interesting by adding a deeper point of view. Let’s say I’m in the point of view of the teacher. Maybe she’s having a rough day and is tired of students shuffling in late. We’re still going to stay in third person POV, but we’re in the teacher’s head:

“John shuffled through the door, a moment before the bell. Ms. Williams cringed as she put down her box of tardy slips. How that boy always managed to come in right before the bell, she’d never understand. He couldn’t be so lucky every day, though, could he? One day he’d be late, and then it would be detention for him. She suppressed a smile. While the rest of the students got out their homework, John squinted up at the clock. As if he didn’t know the bell always rang at 8 a.m. sharp. Teenagers. She marked him down as ‘present’ before calling the class to order. She’d call on John first. With those pillow lines on his face and the ridiculous bed-head, he looked half asleep still. If she couldn’t get him for being tardy, she’d get him for being stupid. The rest of the class would enjoy his sleepy attempts at analyzing Edgar Allen Poe.”

This POV gets us into the teacher’s head, and boy does she have issues! It’s much more interesting than the first, more neutral, scene, because it automatically adds tension. The teacher is out to get John. Whether John knows it or not, we aren’t yet sure, but I’d like to keep reading to find out. When working on each scene, think of it as a belt in a motor, or a rubber band if you don’t want to get your hands greasy. If there isn’t enough tension, the belt won’t be able to do its job. If there’s too much tension, it will eventually break. Readers like tension, but you don’t want them to have a heart attack while reading. Still, if there isn’t enough tension, there’s nothing to keep the reader glued to your book.

Writing Tip: Character vs. Plot and Likeable Characters

Power of WordsReaders may argue over what is most important, plot or character. I argue that character is more important than plot. I’ve read novels and stories in which an unlikeable character ruined an awesome plot. I’ve also read novels and stories in which a terrible (or almost non-existent) plot was saved by a likable character.

For many writers, the problem is that the character exists in a very real and very likeable way in the author’s mind. Sometimes, communicating that likability onto paper is a challenge. Readers like to be shown things in a concrete way. Years ago, the book that solidified this idea for me was The Bad Beginning, the first in the series entitled A Series of Unfortunate Events.

In this series, the main characters have tell-tale physical traits or ticks that help us visualize their personalities. When Violet thinks hard about something, for instance, she ties her hair up to keep it out of her eyes. Readers may argue over what is most important, plot or character. I argue that character is more important than plot. I’ve read novels and stories in which an unlikeable character ruined an awesome plot. I’ve also read novels and stories in which a terrible (or almost non-existent) plot was saved by a likable character.

For many writers, the problem is that the character exists in a very real and very likeable way in the author’s mind. Sometimes, communicating that likability onto paper is a challenge. Readers like to be shown things in a concrete way. Years ago, the book that solidified this idea was The Bad Beginning, the first in the series entitled A Series of Unfortunate Events. In this series, the main characters have tell-tale physical traits or ticks that help us visualize their personalities. When Violet thinks hard about something, for instance, she ties her hair up to keep it out of her eyes. This very human habit made me like her as a character.

It’s important to plan a character’s traits before delving into the story. Even if this exists in a subconscious way, I like to write it out before I start writing the actual story. I like to list tangible ways to show my character’s strengths and weaknesses. I’m usually good at thinking of intangible qualities, but I’m not as good at showing these things in a way readers will understand. Having some type of pre-writing helps me keep the reader in mind.

Writing Tip: Using “Track Changes”

Using “Track Changes”

Like most publishers, Freedom Forge Press uses the “track changes” feature in Word to communicate edits to authors. If you don’t already know how to use this feature, it’s important that you learn. If you do it right, it makes editing easy. If you do it wrong, it creates more work for both author and publisher.

Tutorials

There are already a number of helpful tutorials about how to use “track changes.” A quick YouTube search brings up lists of videos, many of them focused on one element of the “track changes” feature. Here is a helpful, concise video: http://youtu.be/uANGRpCEucg.

Use the SAME FILE YOU RECEIVE FROM YOUR EDITOR

I can’t stress this enough. I hear about so many authors putting two files side-by-side and trying to replicate the editor’s edits on an old file. This is making a million times more work for yourself, and it will annoy the editor because there will be formatting issues you won’t truly be able to see—issues the editor has corrected that will go uncorrected, making duplicate work for a busy editor. So when you receive the edited file from your editor, save it to your computer (make sure you don’t save it over your original—just in case. I usually call mine “Document_round1.docx” (or round 2, or 5!). Then, open up the file your editor sent you. Work directly on that file. Do not go back to your original file.

The Review Tab

It all starts with the review tab. I’m using Word 2013, but the newer versions all have a similar appearance. When you click on the “review” tab at the top of the page, this is what you will see:

review-tab

If you have an older version of Word, most of the same features will be there, though it may look slightly different cosmetically.

When you receive feedback from the editor, there will be two things you’ll see. One is editing comments, usually in red or blue. The other are comments in the margin. Let’s take a look at a sample manuscript. This is what the author sends in to the editor:

sample1
The editor will typically do two types of edits: formatting and content. First, let’s talk content (because it looks less “scary” in Word). The editor will make suggestions to improve your content. Since it’s still your story, though, most editors want you to be at least aware of what changes they’ve made. Some editors do this as a courtesy. For others, they’re genuinely giving you a choice. To show the changes I’m making as an editor, I would click the “track changes” button under the “review” tab in Word:

track-changes
Here is what changes would look like after a fairly aggressive edit:

sample2

But usually, editors don’t only want to make changes; they want to explain those changes, too. To do this, they will use the “comment” feature under the review tab:

new-comment

The comment will then appear to the right on your screen:

sample3

So far, nothing too scary. We’ll look at how to work with both comments and edits in a moment. First, let’s see what it looks like when your editor changes formatting. In the example below, the editor has decided to use single spacing for the manuscript and change the font. Here is what you will see:

sample4

It looks really scary, but it’s just Word telling you every change that was made. There are ways to make it look less scary, though the more you work with it, the less intimidating it gets. In Word 2013, you can customize what you see. For instance, under the “tracking” menu (a sub-menu of the “review tab”), you can choose “simple markup,” “all markup,” “no markup,” or “original.”

markup-options

When you click the pull-down arrow, the menu will expand to look like this:

markup-options-2

You can play around with which option you prefer, but for authors, it’s usually best to use “all markup” so that you can see exactly what the editor has done. “Simple markup” simplifies the appearance of the manuscript, but it makes it more difficult to see what changes have been made. “Original” flips back to the original version of the manuscript in case you want to see what it looked like in the first place.

You can also customize the view by clicking the pull-down arrow that says “show markup.” This lets you customize what types of edits you see:

show-markup

When I’m working with a piece from the editor, I like to look at all types of edits made, but some authors find formatting edits distracting. Here’s what the edited manuscript would look like if we unchecked “formatting” above:

sample3

The formatting has still been changed, but it’s hidden from the author.

Now let’s look at how you can work with these changes once you receive them from your editor. First of all, if you really trust your editor, you can simply go to the accept button…

accept

And from the pull-down menu, select, “accept all changes.”

accept-all

Doing this creates a clean, edited manuscript with only the comments still showing. Most authors, however, want to see and approve every change made. If you simply click the “accept” button, it will accept the change and move on to the next one. This way, the author can see each change. If there is a change you don’t like, you can use the “reject” button to reject that particular change. If you want to explain to your editor why you want to reject a change, place your cursor at the change, and click “new comment.”

new-comment

This will allow you to explain why you want to reject the change.

Speaking of comments, even once you’ve gone through all the changes and accepted/rejected them, you’ll still see the comments. To delete a comment, right-click on that comment and select “delete,” or use the “delete” button under the “comments” sub-menu. The pull-down menu allows you to delete a particular comment, or all comments. To expedite my editing, I usually delete all the comments at once, after I’ve gone through each and every edit.

The more you play with “track changes,” the more you will understand it and see how useful it is. Don’t be afraid of it, and don’t be afraid to search for tutorials on the features you want to understand more completely.

Writing Tip: Controlling the Camera

Power of WordsI like the word “experience” rather than “show” or “tell” because when it comes down to it, writing is more of an art than a science. Sure, there are tools to learn (POV, description, pacing, etc.), but when it comes down to it, an engaging author will learn to use the right tools at the right time to create an engaging narrative. The bottom line is: you want to help your reader experience your story. This is why movies are so much more tempting to the general population than books—movies are immediate, and they allow us to experience the world through a viewpoint carefully chosen by the filmmaker.

As an editor, I have rejected works for various reasons. Some works go into way too much detail. It’s as if the author was told by an English teacher (and I worry—because I do teach English!) to be descriptive, and the author has tried to pack as much description as possible into the scene. While an interesting metaphor or two is nice, there has to be a purpose for such description. Readers have so much to do other than reading that they want to feel their time is being respected. Everything included in a novel or a story should have a purpose.

Too much description for description’s sake can sometimes feel like a waste of time to a reader. On the other hand, I have rejected works that don’t get me close enough to the character. Some works merely summarize what’s happening in an almost clinical manner. They do too much “telling” instead of “showing.” While writing is, to some extent, subjective, good writing is good writing. An engaging story will hook most readers. Engaging writing is the key to hooking editors and agents. I’ve read and loved stories in genres I thought I hated all because of how well they were written. I’ve started, hated, and abandoned stories written in genres I love because the stories didn’t hook me—I felt like the author wasn’t respecting my time, didn’t have control of the narrative, and wasn’t trying to help me experience the story.

When you write, think of yourself as a movie director. You control the camera. Where do you want to force your readers to look? If you make readers look at too much all at once, the story becomes confusing and un-engaging. If a director simply placed a camera far enough away so that we could see all the characters at once, we wouldn’t know what to look at. We’d squint at the screen for a bit, trying to make out all the little dots running around, and then we’d probably shrug and walk out of the theater, demanding a refund.

On the other hand, if you force the reader to look at too much detail, the story also becomes un-engaging. How many times have you skipped ahead when you saw that a story contained too many paragraphs of description? When a filmmaker zooms in on something, like a close-up of a character’s lips as they are talking, it’s interesting for a few seconds, but if the camera stays zoomed in for much longer, it becomes uncomfortable—then boring. There is no “rule” for how much detail to include in a story. In general, the more detail you include, the slower the pace. You’ve got to find the right balance to best communicate the purpose of each scene. Choose your camera angle, and decide how long to focus on each element. Now apply that to your writing. The page is blank. It’s up to you.

Writing Tip: Don’t Squander the Gift of Writing

Power of WordsWriters are lucky. As Ray Bradbury discovered, he has the power to live forever. In his works and in his life’s musings, he was fascinated with the idea of living forever—and as a modern classic author, he will. But he had another theme that emerged in all his works, and I find it fascinating: the realization that one is alive.

Too many of us take life for granted. Stop and smell the roses is a cliché of clichés, but it’s an important idea. How many of us slow down and realize, every day, that we’re alive? I was never raised on Country, but one of my favorite songs is “Live Like You Were Dying” because it captures this same idea. We are alive, and we have all these years (or days, or hours) to make something of ourselves. We shouldn’t squander any of it.

It’s the same with writing. We have this gift of writing—yes, you do, right there behind the monitor. If you didn’t have the gift of writing in you, you wouldn’t be reading this!—and it’s important that we don’t squander it. So many people want to see their work in print so badly that they’ll type something up quickly, edit it briefly, send it off to a dozen editors or agents, and then complain about how difficult it is to get published. I propose writing something that is amazing, that celebrates one facet of the amazing gem that is the human condition, something that leaves the reader with a long-lasting, thought-provoking idea that lingers on the brain, in the heart, and in the soul.

Take time to master the craft of writing, for with enough practice, you might just find that your writing has become immortal.

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Writing Tip: Overwriting

Power of WordsGood writing is invisible. That’s the bottom line.

We’ve all heard the expression: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of well-intentioned English assignments or a romanticized view of the muses pouring sweet words into a writer’s ear, but many inexperienced writers are guilty of overwriting.

Sometimes called “purple prose,” overwriting is overly elaborate and flowery. It’s too descriptive. It draws the reader out of the story and calls attention to itself. Think of a good book or a good movie. You sit in front of the screen or turn page after page without really being aware that time is passing. This is invisible storytelling. In most good books, the words are there to take the reader along for the ride, not to call attention to the words themselves.

All too often, we are forced to reject submissions because the plot is lost behind overwritten passages. Sometimes, purple prose is so invasive that we never even get to the plot. An overwritten passage might look something like this:

She sat in the tall, wooden chair with the pink, plush upholstery. She picked up the heavy, leather menu and opened to the crème colored cardstock pages, perusing the items offered for dining. Should she order beef wellington with seared Brussels sprout, or butterfly shrimp imperial with sautéed mushrooms in crème sauce? The waiter arrived, pouring icy cool water into a glass. She watched the condensation appear on the crystal glassware and listened to the ice plop into the glass one by one like little children jumping into a pool on the first day of summer. The waiter smiled like the Cheshire cat and asked if she would like to look at the wine menu…

In the scene above, there is no need for so much description. And what are we supposed to take away from the scene, anyway? The writing isn’t slanted to make us feel a certain way about the character. We have no idea what she cares about, or fears, or likes. Is she nervous? Is she waiting for someone? Is she smug?

Instead, writers should use description to create the outline of a scene. I like to use the metaphor of a coloring book. The artist of a coloring book provides enough lines so that we see what the picture is supposed to be, but we are left to fill in the colors. An author should do something similar. Provide enough details to let the reader know what the scene is supposed to be. Trust the reader to fill in the rest.

When would such detail be justified? If the plot or the characterization requires such focus on detail, such a passage might be justified. For instance, if I want to illustrate that a character who feels trapped at her desk job, I might add a paragraph describing her desk in detail, but I would make the description work harder than simple description. I would add figurative language and words with strong connotations that suggested being trapped in order to show how she feels. I might compare the pattern on the carpet of her office to the bars of a prison. Or highlight the restrictive connotations of the paperclip chain she made. Maybe I could describe the intricate doodles she made in the margins of her desk calendar to show how bored she is. In any case, I would make sure the description contained strong connotations that helped characterize her and highlight the problem she has with her job.

Most importantly, writers must understand that the reader is not captive. The printed word is competing for a reader’s time. There’s DVR, smartphones, dogs, kids, restaurants, the gym… writers must earn the reader’s respect. Any word that isn’t pulling its weight should go—especially purple prose.

So often, we learn how to forge elaborate metaphors while in English class or writing workshops. Learning the tools is one thing. We need to know what we’re capable of before we can perfect our art of writing. But once we know what tools we possess, we need to know the most effective tool to use in each situation. If we use too many tools, we end up making even more of a mess than when we started.

Writing Tip: Over-Explaining (Trust Your Reader)

Power of WordsMy early writings were guilty of over-explaining. As a teacher, I’m used to explaining instructions over and over again. Half the time, students aren’t listening; the other half, they aren’t focused. In my daily instruction, I’m sometimes asked to repeat the same instructions, in different ways, three or four times.

This does not translate well to writing.

Over-explaining in writing creates boring, tedious prose that makes a reader want to put the book down. Good fiction writing is the opposite of analysis. Points are implied or made indirectly, not blatantly stated.

When I first started writing, I wanted to make sure my reader got my point. I’d write things like:

Jane walked a lap around the track, narrowly missing the piles of goose droppings that always ended up near the high-jump mat. She shook her head and wondered why her school was the only one without a rubberized track to practice on. The other schools, with their fancy districts, had so much money that they bought rubberized tracks for the fields as well as field houses for the indoor season. During the winter months, Jane had to practice in the halls of her high school. She grimaced at her shin splints, something caused by the hard hallway floors. It just wasn’t fair that her school didn’t have the money for more proper equipment. This also meant her school could never host any track meets. It wasn’t like the other schools, which had fancy uniforms that seemed to be new every year. Jane’s school could barely afford shorts and jerseys that matched…

I’d go on and on. I wanted to make sure the reader understood that Jane was bitter about her district’s lack of money compared to the wealthy districts in the surrounding towns. As a young writer, I’d re-read the paragraph and nod my head—take that, wealthy districts! Jane hates you! And now all the readers out there will know it!

I never put myself into the mindset of a reader. What I failed to realize is just how wordy and full of “telling” (not “showing”) that paragraph actually is. “Telling” too much leaves little (or no) tension. Readers like the feel smart when they read. They prefer to be “shown” things and feel like they’re figuring things out for themselves. The dark secret is that a good writer works very hard so that the reader doesn’t have to. If a piece is well-written enough, the reader will feel smart, but it’s actually the genius writer who put all the pieces in place.

In the above scene, what I should have done is added tension somehow and shown how Jane felt about the other teams. Maybe I could place her at a track meet:

The 1600 was called for warm-ups, and there was only one heat. Jane laced her shoes. She bent to stretch, but she didn’t quite touch her toes: dried goose droppings caked the tips of her sneakers. Sprinting on the dirt track in back of her school was never a good idea during early May, but where else was she supposed to practice?

To her left, a trio of runners in shiny red shorts stretched in unison. Even their sneakers matched. Hell, even their bejeweled hair clips matched. Damn Southport and their money. One of the girls looked in Jane’s direction and giggled. Then she cupped her hand and whispered something to her teammate. The three of them chuckled. Jane followed their eye line to her shorts.  

Yes, they were the same shorts the boys’ team wore. Yes, her team had run out of girls’ shorts. So what if Jane was the only distance runner for the girls and came up with the short straw when it came time to distribute uniforms? The only thing that mattered was how anyone performed in the race, and Jane was about to show them all. She took off for a warm-up lap, leaving the giggling clones behind her.

By adding conflict and other characters, I’m able to show not only that Jane is bitter about her district’s financial situation, but also that she is not going to give up based on her condition. In fact, the end of this short scene suggests that Jane will use her circumstances as motivation for success. In any case, it’s a stronger scene, and it trusts the reader to pick up on Jane’s bitterness without explaining too much of it.

I’ve read too many books written by talented writers who then sabotage their own talents by over-explaining:

She shivered as he glared at her from across the room. She felt the edge of her pocketbook to make sure the can of pepper-spray was still there. She was terrified he might attack her.

In the above example, the first two sentences do a great job showing us how the main character feels: she’s obviously scared of the guy staring at her from across the room. We don’t need to hear that she is terrified; that’s already been shown through her shivering. The threat of attack is inherent in her reaching for the pepper spray.

Sure, there are times when it’s easier and simply more efficient to condense information into “telling,” but in general, “showing” allows more tension, provides better characterization, and increases reader interest.

Writing Tip: Exclamation Points!

Power of WordsWriting Tip: Exclamation Points!

This lesson will be short and sweet. Exclamation points annoy editors. They annoy readers, too, even if only on a subconscious level. Why?

They’re lazy. And tacky. They’re a mark of an inexperienced writer.

The bottom line: Use exclamation marks sparingly. Instead, let your language do the work.

Here’s an example:

It’s raining outside!

The exclamation mark tells me, as a reader, that there’s something exciting or important about the rain, right? But what? Instead of using an exclamation mark, choose more specific, precise language to bring a clearer message to the reader. The message should still contain an “inherent sense of exclamation,” but the punctuation mark itself should not be necessary.

For instance:

The rain pounded the window, pushing through the tiny crack at the bottom. (Inherent sense of exclamation: The house is going to be flooded!)

The rain obliterated the convertible. (Inherent sense of exclamation: Should have put that top up!)

The rain soaked into the drought-dried dust, speckling it with life-giving water. (Inherent sense of exclamation: There won’t be a second Dust Bowl!)

Noah had been right after all. The flood started with three heavy drops that announced a deluge. (Inherent sense of exclamation: A flood of Biblical proportions!)

All of the above sentences contain an inherent sense of excitement, but the language of each sentence already implies the excitement. In these instances, an added exclamation mark would just look tacky.

The rain pounded the window, pushing through the tiny crack at the bottom!

The rain obliterated the convertible!

The rain soaked into the drought-dried dust, speckling it with life-giving waters!

Noah had been right after all! The flood started with three heavy drops that announced a deluge.

Tacky.

And unnecessary.

Exclamation marks don’t have to be eliminated entirely, but as a general rule, if you can show it with language, avoid using an exclamation mark.

Writing Tip: Point of View

Power of WordsWriting Tip: Point of View

Point of view is one of the last things I “got” as a student of writing, but when I did, it was an “aha!” moment that changed my writing. Point of view is one of those things that we don’t actively realize as we’re reading, but it’s necessary for good storytelling.

We are human. By nature, we are limited in our perspective on the world. If I’m sitting in a room full of people, I’m going to be focused on things that interest me—perhaps dynamics between couples, or maybe I’ll be checking out hairstyles in anticipation of my upcoming appointment at the hairdresser. If I’m an athlete training for a triathlon, I might be checking out body figures, looking for muscle mass peeking through clothing. The point is, my focus in any given situation will be limited.

When writing, it’s important that each scene is told through one particular point of view. The “point of view character” is the character through which we experience a scene. It may sound counter-intuitive, but to help the reader better understand and enjoy a scene, we must be limited in the amount of information we are given. When we provide details, they must come from the perspective of the point of view character. If I’m the point of view character, for instance, I might not know what my face looks like, but I do know how others react to me.

As an example, let’s examine a scene that will be told in third person limited to me. Here are two versions:

She stood at the counter staring at the cute shop clerk. Her face turned into a crooked smile that looked like the paisleys on her shirt. Then she blushed as the guy behind the counter smiled back.

She stood at the counter. Her lips contorted involuntarily. He really was that cute. She smoothed the folds of her paisley shirt to calm her burning cheeks, but when she looked back up, he was still staring at her, smiling back.

In the first example, we step out of the point of view character. Unless there’s a mirror at the counter, she would be unable to see her smile in order to compare it to her shirt. Likely, the man behind the counter is the one comparing her smile to the design on her shirt. Since we’re supposed to be in her POV in this scene, we can’t step outside her body and look at her.

Instead, she can FEEL her lips contorting, and she might GUESS at what they look like, but she wouldn’t know, and it’s not a detail she’s likely to notice. Think about it: when was the last time you compared your smile to something (unless you were looking at a picture of yourself)? Similarly, she cannot see herself blush, but she can feel her cheeks heating up. In the second example, “he really was that cute” allows us into her mind.

Staying within a single point of view character (per scene) is important because if we experience a story in an omniscient way, we become overwhelmed and bored. As humans, we want a character to latch onto, to know, to root for. Any character is going to be flawed (this is a good thing), and experiencing a scene through the character’s flaws lets us understand that character as a human being.

Here is that same scene written in an omniscient point of view.

She stood at the counter, thinking about how cute he was. Her lips curled into a smile that looked like the paisleys on her shirt. He couldn’t help checking out her curves, and she smoothed her shirt as a way to hide her embarrassment. She looked a little bit like his ex-wife, but he couldn’t tell without seeing the eyes. He continued to stare at her, willing her to look up. When she finally did, she was blushing, and she hoped he didn’t notice too much. The last date she’d gone on had been disastrous. Her face had stayed red the entire time. But now, he was smiling back, and he couldn’t wait to ask her out for drinks. While he continued smiling, she tried to remember what in the world she had come to the store to buy.

In this example, there is too much information. I’m in her head, then his, then hers again. It’s overwhelming. Instead, I need to experience the scene through just one character’s perspective. Even if you’re not a romance reader, a good way to fully understand point of view is to pick up a romance novel. These books are written in alternating perspectives, usually third person limited from the lead male and lead female roles. Usually, these novels switch point of view by chapter—sometimes by scene within chapters.

Editors may refer to switching points of view as “head hopping.” If you hear this comment, it means you have left the perspective of your point of view character and are giving us information that your character couldn’t possibly have known.

When editing, I often scribble the point of view character’s name at the top of each chapter. Then, as I go through the scene the first time, I make sure there is no head-hopping going on. On the second read-through, I try to add details that provide even more perspective from the POV character’s perspective. This is a great way to add indirect characterization. If I’m trying to show that a character is afraid, for example, without blatantly saying “she was scared,” I can use this technique. For instance:

She stepped up to the doorway. A reflection in the glass storm door made her shudder, pulling her jacket tight against her frame. She glanced behind her, but she was alone. She shook her head, wondering what her lawyer would say if he found out where she was. No matter. She was here now. She rang the doorbell and waited. She glanced at the evergreen bushes behind her, the ones screening the porch from the street. The ones that had screened Timmy’s body from view. Her throat tightened, and she pushed against the memories…

In this scene, we can tell this character has had a negative experience with this house, and she is trying to reconcile the past. Because we’re in her head, we know that she’s at the house against the recommendation of her lawyer, and we know she is mourning for someone named Timmy. We can tell she feels vulnerable when she pulls her jacket tighter against her, and we know she is worried when she thinks she sees are reflection in the doorway.  

For point of view, you can always use first person point of view as the narrative perspective (think Katniss of The Hunger Games). Some publishers dig it; some don’t. Just make sure the narrator’s voice is likeable and will offer you a wide enough perspective to tell the whole story. (In The Great Gatby, Nick Carraway becomes a nearly omniscient narrator since he is telling the story years after it has happened, a workaround for the limits of first-person narration.)

If you’re having trouble writing third person limited, write in first person first; then switch. For instance:

I stepped up to the counter, worried that I had imagined the whole thing. I wondered if maybe the silly smiles we exchanged last time had been a product of my boy-crazy brain. I smiled at him, and I breathed relief when he smiled back.

This is written in first person POV, and the switch to third POV is easy enough:

She stepped up to the counter, worried that she had imagined the whole thing. She wondered if the silly smiles they exchanged last time had been a product of her boy-crazy brain. She smiled at him and breathed relief when he smiled back.

A plethora of often-contradicting POV advice resides on the Internet and in books on writing. Some editors insist that the main POV character stay “in control” for at least the first fifty pages. Others are more tolerant of switching perspectives. In any case, it’s a good idea to experiment with point of view early on in the drafting stage. Doing so allows writers to find the best voice (or voices) for the story.