How to Avoid Errors in Tense (Past or Present)

Tense comes easier to some writers than to others. If you’re a writer that struggles with sticking to one tense, here are some tips that will help.

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Choose Your Natural Tense

Unless there is a very good reason not to, write your novel in the tense that comes most naturally to you. This will save you a ton of time in revisions, because no matter how hard you try, you will always (at least occasionally) veer back towards your natural tense if you try to write in a tense you’re not as comfortable with.

The majority of writers are weak in present tense. Even after dozens of rounds of revisions, their writing still has glaring errors. In the typical past tense novel I edit, I see maybe 4-12 issues with the tense across the entire manuscript. But in every single present tense novel, I see hundreds of errors in tense, sometimes 4-12 per page.

There are some writers, though rare, that have an easier time sticking to present tense than past. There are also some writers who don’t make mistakes in either tense. Know what kind of writer you are. Be aware of which tense comes more naturally to you and use it!

Check Around Dialogue

One of the most common places I find tense errors is directly following dialogue that is in the opposite tense of the narration. For example:

I shove my hands on my hips and scowl. “It wasn’t like that,” I said.

Since the dialogue is in the past tense, it tricks the writer’s brain into thinking that “said” is correct. This should really be written:

I shove my hands on my hips and scowl. “It wasn’t like that,” I say.

Here’s an example in past tense:

I marched across the room and grabbed her by the shoulders.  “We need to get out of here now,” I say and wipe the sweat from my brow.

Again, the tense has shifted after the dialogue. It should be written:

I marched across the room and grabbed her by the shoulders. “We need to get out of here now,” I said and wiped the sweat from my brow.

Mistakes in tense around dialogue are extremely common so make sure to spend extra time on these areas.

Imagine Talking to a Friend

This is a trick that can help the writers who truly can’t identify whether something is in past or present tense.

If you’re not sure whether a line is written correctly, imagine that rather than reading a story, you are talking to a friend.

If you are trying to write in the present tense, imagine you are talking to a friend and narrating what you’re doing right this second. For example:

I turn around and walk to the counter. The clerk smiled at me as I picked out a pack of gum.

If you imagine that you are narrating your every move as it happens, you will realize that “the clerk smiled” doesn’t make sense. It should be “the clerk smiles.”

If you’re trying to write in the past tense, imagine you are telling a story to your friend about something that happened last week. For example:

I ran down the street and bumped into Mrs. Duncan. She scowls at me and nearly faints.

When reading that out loud as if you’re telling a story about last week, it’s obvious that “she scowls” doesn’t make sense and that it should be “she scowled.”

Proofread, Proofread, then Proofread Again

If you’re writing in present tense or if you struggle with the past tense, you need to proofread your novel multiple times. Read through the entire thing looking for nothing but tense errors. Read it backwards if you have to. But make sure that you catch every single error in tense.

Though the mistakes may be simple to fix, errors in tense jar readers out of the story, which means that agents and editors will be more likely to chuck your manuscript into the rejection pile.

Get a Beta Reader or Hire an Editor

If worst comes to worst and you feel that you aren’t able to iron out your tense issues on your own, seek out a capable beta reader or hire an editor.

For more thoughts on tense, check out my article: Present Tense Might be a Bad Idea.

Need help with tense, plot, or other problems? Check out my editing services or pick up a free 1,000 word edit.

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12 thoughts on “How to Avoid Errors in Tense (Past or Present)

  1. thewriterscafe247 says:

    The one thing I’ve noticed that a lot of writers have issues with is making their sentences in tense and number. If you have a singular present tense noun you can’t have a plural past tense verb. I’ve edited a lot of academic articles and that is one of the biggest problems I’ve seen. Fun post

  2. Ella says:

    I just discovered your blog today and am enjoying reading through your ‘Ultimate Guide’ series. One thought here: I was thrown off by the first example (‘I thrust my hands…’) because ‘thrust’ can be either present or past. (Whether the latter use is correct, I don’t know, but I’ve seen it many times.) Perhaps a less ambiguously present verb might serve you better.

  3. Ella says:

    (My comment of 13 Dec. seems never to have been approved. Perhaps it’s caught in a spam filter? If so, I can repost it; otherwise, go ahead and delete this followup comment.)

  4. Hanako Versluis says:

    Thanks! The post has really helped but I still can’t turn “the silence was shattered” into present tense. Does anyone have any suggestions?

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