Writing in Present Tense Might be a Bad Idea


First, just let me say that I do not hate the present tense.  In fact, I have a present tense story being published in an anthology later this year.  The problem with present tense is that it’s great when it’s great, and when it’s not….*shudder* it’s horrible!

Present tense novels are an editor’s nightmare because no matter how much you think you understand present tense, you don’t.  You really don’t.  Every single present tense novel I’ve ever edited has had hundreds of mistakes in the tense.  If you’re an unpublished, unknown writer, having hundreds of errors makes it a pretty short trip to the rejection pile.  And that’s if the agent/editor likes present tense.

There are many agents and editors who have a written or unwritten policy to never or rarely accept fiction in the present tense (this seems especially common in adult science fiction and fantasy).  Aside from maybe second person, it’s one of the most widely hated narrative styles.  This doesn’t mean that present tense fiction is never published.  It is.  Though in adult fiction it is greatly outnumbered by stories in past tense.

If you want to take a risk and go with present tense, it is not a guaranteed failure. But is writing a present tense novel a good way to launch a writing career?  Probably not.  Does it lower your odds of publication?  Almost definitely.

However, for young adult and middle grade readers, present tense is far more common and acceptable. It’s possible that writing in present tense may even be advantageous in these genres (for stats on present vs. past tense in middle grade, click here).

Still going with present tense?  I cannot stress enough the importance of getting it in the hands of a competent editor before self publishing or submitting to agents/editors.  You’ve gotta get rid of the errors in tense!

Present tense is one of my specialties, so if you’d like my help, check out my novel editing services.

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5 thoughts on “Writing in Present Tense Might be a Bad Idea

  1. sabcooke says:

    I never have and never will understand why people write in the present tense. Ultimately, the tense doesn’t effect the experience of a book that much, if at all. The risks carried with present tense are too high to be worth the effort.

  2. Vividhunter says:

    The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was written in present tense and went on to win the Hugo. I think the choice went well with his style, and the frenetic pace of the latter half of the book but he also has an editor to help smooth out the errors.

  3. Heidi Ellen Whurr says:

    Ah right. I am an avid present tense writer, writing my first novel. I have strong reasons why I love present over past tense. I find it more visual, more alive and real. I find past tense a stumbling block for my minds eyes and cannot get my head around something that has “happened” as a pose to “happening.” I’d rather be immersed in something that is real right now and not something that is already over. I hate to feel as though I’m shooting myself in the foot here, maybe I should do two versions of the novel? Thing is, I really don’t like past tense, if a publisher wants it in past he’s got a fight on his hands. Eik.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      There’s nothing wrong with writing in present tense if it works for you and you like it. For a lot of writers present tense is a stumbling block that leads to grammatical errors and constantly switching tenses. If that doesn’t apply to you and present tense fits your novel, then go for it!

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