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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How to Punctuate Dialogue: The Ultimate Guide

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The vast majority of writers make errors when punctuating the dialog in their novels.  Many writers who make these errors think they have a firm grasp on dialog punctuation.

Though it probably won’t get you rejected by an agent or editor, incorrect punctuation can put them in a very nasty mood (the last thing you want when they’re handling your precious novel).

Commas

Commas are always used with dialog tags, whether they come before or after the dialog.  For example:

“Look at the dog,” he said. [RIGHT]

He said, “Look at the dog.” [RIGHT]

“Look at the dog.” He said.  [WRONG]

He said. “Look at the dog.” [WRONG]

If an exclamation point or question mark is used and the dialog tag comes after the dialog, then there should be no comma and the dialog tag should not be capitalized.  For example:

“Did you see the dog?” he asked. [RIGHT]

“Did you see the dog?” He asked. [WRONG]

Dialog Tags

Writers are often confused about what qualifies as a dialog tag.  A dialog tag is only something that references the way the words came out of the character’s mouth.  Any gestures, expressions, movements, etc. should be set apart from the dialog with a period, not connected with a comma.  For example:

8392210897_586b9ec905“Look at the dog,” he exclaimed. [RIGHT]

“Look at the dog,” he smirked. [WRONG]

“Look at the dog,” he pointed. [WRONG]

He jumped up and down, “Look at the dog.” [WRONG]

And despite what many writers seem to think, you cannot laugh or sigh dialog.

“Oh, bother,” she sighed. [WRONG]

“Oh, bother,” she said, sighing. [RIGHT]

“Look at that cute puppy,” she laughed. [WRONG]

“Look at that cute puppy.” She laughed. [RIGHT]

If the dialog tag is in the middle of a character speaking, then the dialog is not capitalized after the tag unless it starts a new sentence.  For example:

“I was thinking,” she said, “that maybe you could teach me.” [RIGHT]

“I was thinking,” she said, “That maybe you could teach me.” [WRONG]

“I love that dog,” she said. “He’s so cute.” [RIGHT]

“I love that dog,” she said, “he’s so cute.” [WRONG]

Interrupted Dialog

If the dialog is interrupted by another character speaking, use an em dash.  For example:

“It’s not fai-”

“Shut up!” he said. [RIGHT]

It’s not fai . . .”

“Shut up!” he said. [WRONG]

 

Landscape

Trailing Dialog

If a character trails off, an ellipsis should be used.  Despite what many people think, an ellipsis is only three periods. For example:

“I just thought maybe . . .” [RIGHT]

“I just thought maybe…………” [WRONG]

Multiple Paragraphs of Dialog

If your dialog needs to run multiple paragraphs without dialog tags breaking it up, then each paragraph that is not the last paragraph should have no quotation mark at the end of it.  For example:

“My dear, sweet Love.  I love you so much that I can barely take it. You are the sun and the moon and the stars to me and you always will be.

“Unless, of course, you betray me, then I will cut off your head and put it on a stake,” he said. [RIGHT]

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Writing in Present Tense Might be a Bad Idea

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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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Stop Using “-ing” Verbs in Your Novel

Want to add instantaneous strength to your novel?  Cut out verbs ending in “ing.”  These verbs weaken your writing and reduce the reader’s perception of immediacy. So avoiding these verbs can increase tension and improve flow.

6891657867_2b78f2abfeConsider the following sentences:

  • He was walking to the park.
  • I was dancing on stage.
  • She is staring at me.

Now check out these replacement sentences:

  • He walked to the park.
  • I danced on stage.
  • She stares at me.

See how much more direct and powerful these sentences are?  And of course,  this has a cumulative effect.  The more “-ing” verbs you cut out, the stronger your writing will seem. Consider this paragraph:

Abigail was walking along the bike trail. There was a boy riding his bike. He was smiling up at her as she passed. She started wondering what the boy was so happy about.

Now consider the alternative:

Abigail walked along the bike trail. A boy rode his bike and smiled as he passed her. She wondered what the boy was so happy about.

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