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Writing in third person

Date: 2022-11-12Last modified: 2022-11-20

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Writing in Third Person Academically

Use third person for all academic writing

For formal writing, such as research and argumentative papers, use the third person. Third person makes writing more objective and less personal. For academic and professional writing, this sense of objectivity allows the writer to seem less biased and, therefore, more credible.

Third person helps the writing stay focused on facts and evidence instead of personal opinion.

Use the correct pronouns

Third person refers to people “on the outside.” Either write about someone by name or use third person pronouns.

Third person pronouns include: he, she, it; his, her, its; him, her, it; himself, herself, itself; they; them; their; themselves.

Names of other people are also considered appropriate for third person use.

Example: “Smith believes differently. According to his research, earlier claims on the subject are incorrect.”

Avoid first person pronouns

First person refers to a point of view in which the writer says things from his or her personal perspective. This point of view makes things too personal and opinionated. Avoid first person in an academic essay.

First person pronouns include: I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our, ours, ourselves.

The problem with first person is that, academically speaking, it sounds too personalized and too subjective. In other words, it may be difficult to convince the reader that the views and ideas being expressed are unbiased and untainted by personal feelings. Many times, when using first person in academic writing, people use phrases like “I think,” “I believe,” or “in my opinion.”

Incorrect example: “Even though Smith thinks this way, I think his argument is incorrect.”

Correct example: “Even though Smith thinks this way, others in the field disagree.”

Avoid second person pronouns

Second person refers to point of view that directly addresses the reader. This point of view shows too much familiarity with the reader, by speaking to them directly, as if the writer personally knows his or her reading audience. Second person should never be used in academic writing.

Second person pronouns include: you, your, yours, yourself.

One main problem with second person is that it can sound accusatory. It runs to risk of placing too much responsibility on the shoulders of the reader specifically and presently reading the work.

Incorrect example: “If you still disagree nowadays, then you must be ignorant of the facts.”

Correct example: “Someone who still disagrees nowadays must be ignorant of the facts.”

Refer to the subject in general terms

Sometimes, a writer will need to refer to someone in indefinite terms. In other words, they may need to generally address or speak about a person. This is usually when the temptation to slip into the second person “you” comes into play. An indefinite third person pronoun or noun is appropriate here.

Indefinite third person nouns common to academic writing include: the writer, the reader, individuals, students, a student, an instructor, people, a person, a woman, a man, a child, researchers, scientists, writers, experts.

Example: “In spite of the challenges involved, researchers still persist in their claims.”

Indefinite third person pronouns include: one, anyone, everyone, someone, no one, another, any, each, either, everybody, neither, nobody, other, anybody, somebody, everything, someone.

Incorrect example: “You might be tempted to agree without all the facts.”

Correct example: “One might be tempted to agree without all the facts.”

Watch out for singular and plural pronoun use

One mistake that writers often make when writing in third person is accidentally conjugating a plural pronoun as singular.

This is usually done in an attempt to avoid the gender-specific “he” and “she” pronouns. The mistake here would be to use the “they” pronoun with singular conjugation.

Incorrect example: “The witness wanted to offer anonymous testimony. They was afraid of getting hurt if their name was spread.”

Correct example: “The witness wanted to offer anonymous testimony. They were afraid of getting hurt if their name was spread.”

Writing in Third Person Omniscient

Shift your focus from character to character

When using third person omniscient perspective, the narrative jumps around from person to person instead of following the thoughts, actions, and words of a single character. The narrator knows everything about each character and the world. The narrator can reveal or withhold any thoughts, feelings, or actions.

For instance, a story may include four major characters: William, Bob, Erika, and Samantha. At various points throughout the story, the thoughts and actions of each character should be portrayed. These thoughts can occur within the same chapter or block of narration.

Writers of omniscient narratives should be conscious of “head-hopping” — that is, shifting character perspectives within a scene. While this does not technically break the rules of Third Person Omniscience, it is widely considered a hallmark of narrative laziness.

This is a good voice to use if you want to remove yourself from the work so the readers don’t confuse the narrator for you.

Reveal any information you want

With third person omniscient view, the narration is not limited the inner thoughts and feelings of any character. Along with inner thoughts and feelings, third person omniscient point of view also permits the writer to reveal parts of the future or past within the story. The narrator can also hold an opinion, give a moral perspective, or discuss animals or nature scenes where the characters are not present.[7]

In a sense, the writer of a third person omniscient story is somewhat like the “god” of that story. The writer can observe the external actions of any character at any time, but unlike a limited human observer, the writer can also peek into the inner workings of that character at will, as well.

Know when to hold back. Even though a writer can reveal any information he or she chooses to reveal, it may be more beneficial to reveal some things gradually. For instance, if one character is supposed to have a mysterious aura, it would be wise to limit access to that character’s inner feelings for a while before revealing his or her true motives.

Avoid use of the first person and second person pronouns

Active dialog should be the only time that first person pronouns like “I” and “we” should appear. The same goes for second person pronouns like “you.”

Do not use first person and second person points of view in the narrative or descriptive portions of the text.

Correct example: Bob said to Erika, “I think this is creepy. What do you think?”

Incorrect example: I thought this was creepy, and Bob and Erika thought so, too. What do you think?

Writing in Third Person Limited

Pick a single character to follow

When writing in third person limited perspective, a writer has complete access to the actions, thoughts, feelings, and belief of a single character. The writer can write as if the character is thinking and reacting, or the writer can step back and be more objective.

The thoughts and feelings of other characters remain an unknown for the writer throughout the duration of the text. There should be no switching back and forth between characters for this specific type of narrative viewpoint.

Unlike first person, where the narrator and protagonist are the same, third person limited puts a critical sliver of distance between protagonist and narrator. The writer has the choice to describe one main character’s nasty habit — something they wouldn’t readily reveal if the narration were left entirely to them.

Refer to the character’s actions and thoughts from the outside

Even though the focus remains on one character, the writer still needs to treat that character as a separate entity. If the narrator follows the character’s thoughts, feelings, and internal dialogue, this still needs to be in third person.[9]

In other words, do not use first person pronouns like “I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” or “our” outside of dialog. The main character’s thoughts and feelings are transparent to the writer, but that character should not double as a narrator.

Correct example: “Tiffany felt awful after the argument with her boyfriend.”

Correct example: “Tiffany thought, “I feel awful after that argument with my boyfriend.”

Incorrect example: “I felt awful after the argument with my boyfriend.”

Focus on other characters’ actions and words, not their thoughts or feelings

The writer is as limited to just the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings with this point of view. However, with this point of view, other characters can be described without the protagonist noticing it. The narrator can anything the protagonist can; she just can’t get into the other character’s head.[10]

Note that the writer can offer insight or guesses regarding the thoughts of other characters, but those guesses must be presented through the perspective of the main character.

Correct example: “Tiffany felt awful, but judging by the expression on Carl’s face, she imagined that he felt just as bad if not worse.”

Incorrect example: “Tiffany felt awful. What she didn’t know was that Carl felt even worse.”

Do not reveal any information your main character would not know

Although the narrator can step back and describe the setting or other characters, it has to be anything the viewpoint character can see. Do not bounce around from one character to one character within one scene. The external actions of other characters can only be known when the main character is present to view those actions.

Correct example: “Tiffany watched from the window as Carl walked up to her house and rang the doorbell.”

Incorrect example: “As soon as Tiffany left the room, Carl let out a sigh of relief.”

Writing in Episodically Limited Third Person

Jump from character to character

With episodically limited third person, also referred to as third person multiple vision, the writer may have a handful of main characters whose thoughts and perspectives take turns in the limelight. Use each perspective to reveal important information and move the story forward.

Limit the amount of pov characters you include. You don’t want to have too many characters that confuse your reader or serve no purpose. Each pov character should have a specific purpose for having a unique point of view. Ask yourself what each pov character contributes to the story.

For instance, in a romance story following two main characters, Kevin and Felicia, the writer may opt to explain the inner workings of both characters at different moments in the story.

One character may receive more attention than any other, but all main characters being followed should receive attention at some point in the story.

Only focus on one character’s thoughts and perspective at a time

Even though multiple perspectives are included in the overall story, the writer should focus on each character one at a time.

Multiple perspectives should not appear within the same narrative space. When one character’s perspective ends, another character’s can begin. The two perspectives should not be intermixed within the same space.

Incorrect example: “Kevin felt completely enamored of Felicia from the moment he met her. Felicia, on the other hand, had difficulty trusting Kevin.”

Aim for smooth transitions

Even though the writer can switch back and forth between different character perspectives, doing so arbitrarily can cause the narrative to become confusing for the narrative.

In a novel-length work, a good time to switch perspective is at the start of a new chapter or at a chapter break.

The writer should also identify the character whose perspective is being followed at the start of the section, preferably in the first sentence. Otherwise, the reader may waste too much energy guessing.

Correct example: “Felicia hated to admit it, but the roses Kevin left on her doorstep were a pleasant surprise.”

Incorrect example: “The roses left on the doorstep seemed like a nice touch.”

Understand who knows what

Even though the reader may have access to information viewed from the perspective of multiple characters, those characters do not have the same sort of access. Some characters have no way of knowing what other characters know.

For instance, if Kevin had a talk with Felicia’s best friend about Felicia’s feelings for him, Felicia herself would have no way of knowing what was said unless she witnessed the conversation or heard about it from either Kevin or her friend.

Writing in Third Person Objective

Follow the actions of many characters

When using third person objective, the writer can describe the actions and words of any character at any time and place within the story.

There does not need to be a single main character to focus on. The writer can switch between characters, following different characters throughout the course of the narrative, as often as needed.

Stay away from first person terms like “I” and second person terms like “you” in the narrative, though. Only use first and second person within dialog.

Do not attempt to get into directly into a character’s head

Unlike omniscient pov where the narrator looks into everyone’s head, objective pov doesn’t look into anyone’s head.

Imagine that you are an invisible bystander observing the actions and dialog of the characters in your story. You are not omniscient, so you do not have access to any character’s inner thoughts and feelings. You only have access to each character’s actions.

Correct example: “After class, Graham hurriedly left the room and rushed back to his dorm room.”

Incorrect example: “After class, Graham raced from the room and rushed back to his dorm room. The lecture had made him so angry that he felt as though he might snap at the next person he met.”

Show but don’t tell

Even though a third person objective writer cannot share a character’s inner thoughts, the writer can make external observations that suggest what those internal thoughts might be. Describe what is going on. Instead of telling the reader that a character is angry, describe his facial expression, body language, and tone of voice to show that he is mad.

Correct example: “When no one else was watching her, Isabelle began to cry.”

Incorrect example: “Isabelle was too prideful to cry in front of other people, but she felt completely broken-hearted and began crying once she was alone.”

Avoid inserting your own thoughts

The writer’s purpose when using third person objective is to act as a reporter, not a commentator.

Let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Present the actions of the character without analyzing them or explaining how those actions should be viewed.

Correct example: “Yolanda looked over her shoulder three times before sitting down.”

Incorrect example: “It might seem like a strange action, but Yolanda looked over her shoulder three times before sitting down. This compulsive habit is an indication of her paranoid state of mind.”