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Pick a Tense, Stick With It

Pick a Tense and Stick With It

Keeping tense consistent is one of those grammar points that is annoying but essential. While some grammatical rules can be bent or broken, jumping from one tense to another is almost guaranteed to confuse your reader.
Recognizing when you have inadvertently changed tenses can be difficult because we often switch tenses conversationally without correcting ourselves or our peers.
In the context of a friendly chat, this isn’t such a problem, but the tense of your writing is a huge part of setting the scene for your story and being logical.
Switching from past to present to future and back again is an easy way to annoy your reader by making them piece together the elements of your story that have become jumbled.
Here is an (extreme) example:
“Dr. Jones followed Nurse Betty to her car, keeping just far enough out sight to avoid suspicion. He walks silently. Then he stopped. He coughed and ducked behind a garbage can. He will stay there until he can keep quiet again. He stops coughing. He hated that he lost track of her for even one second.”
The sense of time is so disjointed that it ruins what should be a suspenseful paragraph and instead makes it frustrating.
While there are technically more grammatical tenses than just past, present and future, focusing on these three allows you to easily make choices about tense when you sit down to write and edit your story.
Before Writing

Past and present tense are most common in writing. Deciding between these two is an important choice when sitting down to get started. Do you want your novel to have a nostalgic tone that implies a bygone era? Or do you simply want to tell a story that already took place? Past tense is clearly your best bet.
Do you want to take your reader through a series of activities or adventures that unfold to the character as they unfold to your reader? Do you want a more active, immediate tone? Consider present tense.
But once the decision is made, you have to stick with it (short of a rewrite).
After Writing
When you review your story, you need to do one read through looking only for errors and discrepancies in tense. It’s tempting to look for other errors and ways that your writing can be improved. Don’t give in. Focus solely on tense, and if you need to, highlight the verbs in your draft to hone in even further.
This will allow you to see any areas where you jump back and forth and ensure that you achieve consistency.


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Reader Comments

Katherine Sprenger @ Monday, July 09 2012 1:07 AM Flag Inappropriate
This is a very useful tip. Tense switching has always been my biggest grammatical issue. I think I will try highlighting the verbs on my read through, just to make sure. It's definitely worth a try.

Kenney Keys @ Thursday, June 21 2012 8:15 PM Flag Inappropriate
I am under the impression that conversation is always present tense whether or not it was spoken in past or present.

susan quinn @ Thursday, June 21 2012 7:26 PM Flag Inappropriate
I agree with this tip although I did play with the switching of tense in a short story that I wrote entitled, "The Rooftop". I switch from present tense to past tense to indicate the death of Lula. The story was written to practice leaving the ending open for the reader to decide was happened.

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