Be a Better Writer--2nd person

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--2nd person

Post by glorybee » Sat Feb 14, 2015 8:45 am

POV—SECOND PERSON

A piece is written in second person POV if the main character is referred to using the pronoun you. Here’s a quick primer of the three POVs (including a preview of next week’s topic):

First person—I heard the cat coughing up a hairball.
Second person—You heard the cat coughing up a hairball.
Third person—Jan heard the cat coughing up a hairball.

(There are variations of tense; I’ll cover those in a bit.)

Second person is used very rarely in fiction. In my several years at FaithWriters, I only recall it in one or two fictional Challenge entries, one of which took a 2nd place in the EC—it was this excellent story by Leigh MacKelvey for the “Christmas Card” topic (several years ago). Pop over and give it a read, please.

See how unusual that is? And how totally cool? Nevertheless, I don’t recommend that you all start submitting second person fiction pieces. Regardless of how well they’re written, it would get wearisome for the judges to read lots of second person fiction pieces, and I suspect they would start to seem gimmicky quite soon. One per year, perhaps, is more than enough, if you wish to experiment.

By the way, publishers aren’t at all interested in second person fiction pieces. There was a brief period in the 1980’s when “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, written in second person, were quite popular, and I believe that there are some on-line genres that use it (fan fiction, for one). But in general—avoid second person in fiction.

There are, however, some legitimate uses of second person POV.

1. Devotionals and sermons, which are usually written in an expository voice, often switch to second person when giving a charge or an exhortation to the readers/listeners.

2. Manuals or instructions are written in the imperative, with the you understood by the reader:

(You) Insert Tab A in Slot B.

Occasionally, I find pieces in this second person imperative POV in the Challenge. I wrote one called Ten Things the Mother of the Bride Needs to Know that has elements of both 1st and 2nd person in it.

3. Those quizzes that are popular on Facebook. Like this:

You find a $20 bill in the pocket of an old jacket. Do you…
a. buy a new book, of course!
b. splurge on pastry and cappuccino at a coffee shop
c. get some gourmet kitty treats
d. donate it to a charity

There is, however, a common use of second person that you should avoid at all costs. I’ll give you an example from a television commercial that always drives me nuts. It’s for some acne product, and the voiceover narration sounds something like this:

I just apply some Acne-Be-Gone before I go to bed, and in the morning, you don’t have any more pimples!

Do you see it there? That’s a pretty absurd example, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to step into that trap. I read sentences like this many, many times:

As I lit the scented candle, my house was filled with the mixture of aromas that reminds you of Christmas at your grandmother’s house.

If you’ve had comments suggesting that you should avoid slipping into second person, that’s probably what they were talking about: You (the writer) have no idea what the smells were in my (the reader) grandmother’s house. Perhaps my grandmother’s house smelled of burnt toast and cigarette smoke, and if that’s the case, I’m now reading your story with entirely the wrong impression. You should have written

As I lit the scented candle, my house was filled with a mixture of aromas that reminded me of Christmas at my grandmother’s house.

Got it?

Finally, as with the other POV’s, 2nd person can be written in either present or past tense. Here’s an example of each:

2nd person, present tense:
You stare at your computer screen for hours, but you’re uninspired and frustrated. You get a peanut butter cookie or six—surely, you think, they’ll help you shake that writer’s block.

2nd person, past tense:
You stared at your computer screen for hours, but you were uninspired and frustrated. You got a peanut butter cookie or six—surely, you thought, they’d help you shake that writer’s block.

HOMEWORK:
1. Write anything you care to write about second person POV, OR
2. Ask a question about anything in this lesson, OR
3. Link to one Challenge entry in which you used second person. If you do this, please tell us a little bit about your writing process.
4. I listed three legitimate uses of 2nd person. Can you think of others?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by Allison » Sat Feb 14, 2015 4:41 pm

I have done 2nd person imperative at least twice. I don't think I've ever attempted strict 2nd person before. I've been doing the challenge long enough to try pretty much everything else, though. I loved the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books when I was younger.

Interestingly enough, with the "How-To" guides, I have no actual experience in either of the thing I wrote about.

My entry for "gluttony" is in second person, also. I'm actually not really sure if it would be imperative or not. It's not exactly a "how-to" guide, but it's not exactly a story either. It's almost a devotional, but not really. Which may be why it didn't do so well in the challenge. The judges weren't sure what to think of it, and to be honest, neither was I. :) I certainly know it wasn't my strongest writing.

Geekosarus Text

And my "How-To" guides, both of which made EC, I think.
Attempting Perfection
Child's Play

I actually really love unusual formats like lists and top 10 lists, and things like that.
Isaiah 40:30-31 (NIV)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by glorybee » Sat Feb 14, 2015 5:00 pm

Thanks, Allison! You've written here so long, and you've done so well, that I can count on you to have examples of almost every lesson I post. What a valuable service to the other participants!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by Anja » Sat Feb 14, 2015 8:15 pm

deleted the drivel.
Obviously, I have no clue what I am talking about.
Last edited by Anja on Sun Feb 15, 2015 5:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by Laurie » Sat Feb 14, 2015 10:20 pm

I'm writing an eating disorder recovery course for my site in second person. To me, it makes it more personal. I guess it's similar to what you said about sermons and devotionals.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by glorybee » Sat Feb 14, 2015 10:29 pm

Laurie, can you give us a typical paragraph, for those who are interested in seeing what that would look like?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by KatKane » Sun Feb 15, 2015 5:44 am

Another time where second person might be used is letters, particularly formal or to someone not well known to the writer. My effort for the sloth challenge was an example of this. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=50268

As for the writing process... oh my. Let's just put it this way. I was dreading this topic - far too many horrendous memories. I thought about not entering, I tried writing a poem but found it just went too close to home. All the way through, the phrase 'walk by on the other side' seemed to be at the forefront of my mind. I could identify with the man left in the road only too well. Entering the challenge was the right decision because writing it turned out to be very healing. The fact that it didn't do well with the judges didn't really matter. I guess that's the strange thing about the writing challenge sometimes!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by glorybee » Sun Feb 15, 2015 8:11 am

Kat, that story is very clever, and it's a unique retelling of a well-known Bible story, but it's not really written in second person. In second person, the main character is YOU. In your story, there are many places where a YOU is addressed, but the POV character of your story is the letter writer, the "I" character. It's tricky, but simply the word "you" isn't enough to make a piece 2nd person.

It's hard to do this on my phone, but let me give you a few sentences to look at:

I was in Florida visiting my daughter. You were walking your dog. You didn't see me, but I was watching you from the window, and I saw you drop your wallet.

Those sentences are in 1st person POV. Here's the same little vignette, in 2nd person.

You were in Florida, visiting your daughter. You were looking out the window, and you saw them walking by--a woman and her dog. They didn't see you, but you saw her when she dropped her wallet on the ground.

Do you see the difference? In fact, any POV will have plenty of times when all of the pronouns for other characters will be used. The POV character, though, is the one that determines the POV. Whose eyes is the reader looking through? How is that character referred to? That's your POV.

I hope this makes sense ...
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by rcthebanditqueen » Sun Feb 15, 2015 3:32 pm

Well, I don't have much to contribute here. :P My only experience with 2nd person is the Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read. I should experiment with 2nd person sometime just for the fun of it to see what I can learn.

Wait, no, I just remembered mid-type. I wrote a partial poem years and years ago, that was in 2nd person. It was about a cowboy riding a bronc in a rodeo. There was going to be one stanza for each of the eight seconds (eight seconds being the official timed limit for bronc and bull riding in most rodeos). I never did write the eighth stanza...I wonder what happened to that notebook. Of course, I was...like...12 at the time, so what I can recall of the meter was...er... Have you met my friend, Mr. A. Trocious? But hey, it was 2nd person! LOL.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by Allison » Sun Feb 15, 2015 8:01 pm

glorybee wrote:Thanks, Allison! You've written here so long, and you've done so well, that I can count on you to have examples of almost every lesson I post. What a valuable service to the other participants!
Yeah, but I just realized I didn't follow your rules either... I liked to three challenge articles, and it says "one" with one underlined. *blushes*
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by KatKane » Mon Feb 16, 2015 7:00 am

Yep, that makes sense, Jan. I'm going to add writing something in second person to my bucket list :wink:
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by Shann » Mon Feb 16, 2015 6:49 pm

I like that you stressed not to do it often in fiction. I know that how to manuals and devotionals are often done in second person, but I must admit, personally, I feel like it's a lecture coming. I've noticed I even clench my teeth when coming across them. Obviously it's a personal problem and has to do with my control issues. :mrgreen: I prefer devotions that share a personal story that one can relate to and then demonstrate how God is at work in it. Although, there are some devotion writers out there who can use that you without it feeling like it's the universal you or a lecture (at least in my opinion), but they generally have worked a lifetime at mastering it.

I also often see people who write in the second person often slip into the first person plural (we, us). That doesn't seem to rub me the same way the you does, but I think the writer has to be consistent. Don't switch from you to us, unless you have a good reason for doing so. (Which I think is similar to your example of the universal you. It makes me cringe too.) :mrgreen:
I think you included self-help stories in your examples. They are a bit different from the DIY manuals, but more like what Laurie mentions. I did a tongue-in-cheek example below. Since I'm going to be a grandmother soon (yay!) and you're spending time with your grandchildren, this seemed like a wonderful sardonic example.) How'd I do (in writing terms, not in being a "good" grandmother)? I did it fairly fast so I'm not sure if it's perfect, but hopefully it demonstrates your lesson and maybe makes someone smile. Hmm, maybe this will be the start of my challenge entry.


What's the best way to learn how to become a good grandmother? You'd think it comes naturally--your child has a child, voila, you're a grandmother. If you don't want to be the "other" grandmother, however, you must do a few simple things. It can be a hard act to balance. When your precious grandbaby takes a permanent marker and scribbles on your wall, how do you think you'll react? The "other" grandma will scold the child, but if you want to be the favorite grandmother, then scolding is a definite no-no. Instead, put a frame around the masterpiece and give the baby some candy. Make sure you time the giving of the candy at the precise moment. You don't want your little precious to have her sugar high on your watch. No, you save the candy and give it to her just minutes before Mommy comes to take her home.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by glorybee » Tue Feb 17, 2015 9:16 am

Very cute, Shann. You'll be a great grandma!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by TracePezzali » Wed Feb 18, 2015 8:28 am

This has been absolutely fascinating to me! I never knew 'second person' was even a term! Occasionally I slip into it in a diary entry, or in a poem a line here or there, addressing the generic 'you' out there, but I had no idea stories can be written that way. Those two examples you gave, Jan, were exceptional. I loved them both.

"You read the articles that Jan writes, and you think 'Wow'. It makes you feel like doing a little dance, when you read good writing like that, because I know, you know, we all know, its not an easy feat."

Teehee.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--YOU WRITE IN 2ND PERSON

Post by glorybee » Wed Feb 18, 2015 9:01 am

Thanks for the kind words, Trace!
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