Pros and Cons of Writing Your Novel in Past Vs. Present Tense

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Should you write your novel in past or present tense? If you don’t have a default, “go to” tense that you write in, this is one of the first decisions a writer has to make when starting a new novel. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both tenses, but how do you choose? In this post, I explain the pros and cons of the two tenses and why you might choose one over the other.

Quick shout out to Writeditor reader Aimee for this awesome blog post idea!

Past Tense Pro: Tradition/Consider Your Reader

While MG and YA readers may embrace the present tense without distress, adult readers may not do the same. Though I don’t have any official statistics to share, my experience in person and across the web has been that most adults prefer the past tense and many are reluctant to (or flat out won’t) read present tense. So if there’s no good reason to use present tense, sticking to the past may be best.

Caveat: Many adult readers admit that well written present tense is not only enjoyable, but that they don’t even notice the fact that the novel is in the present tense. So if you’re a masterful present tense writer, go for it!

Present Tense Pro: Immediacy

Immediacy and a sense of closeness to the character are usually the two biggest advantages of using the present tense for a novel. When things are happening in the moment, it’s a lot easier to get the reader on the edge of their seat.

Caveat: If your novel does not contain much action, the immediacy of present tense is likely to become tiresome to the reader. The more action, plot twists and turns, and inherently exciting scenes, the more likely present tense will be an advantage.

Past Tense Pro: Moving Around in Time

In the past tense, you can tell your story in any order you want to. You can jump back and forth in time without using flashbacks. You can even start at the end and work backwards if you want to. This can lend a very strategic and artistic form to your story. Skipping time in past tense within a scene or chapter also tends to feel more natural and fluid than in present tense.

Present Tense Pro: A Focus on Voice

If you have a fantastic narrative voice, present tense can really give you the chance to show it off! Combining present tense with a first person point of view can give readers an exciting peek into your character’s psyche through their word choices, emotions, and thought process.

Caveat: This could just as easily be listed as a con. If you do not have an absolutely stellar narrative voice, the present tense can be very dry and tedious. In present tense, voice is more important in keeping the story interesting than it is in past tense.

Past Tense Pro: Less Mistakes

I wrote about this a long time ago, but it’s a vitally important factor to me (as an editor): past tense novels have less mistakes. Whenever a present tense novel lands on my desk, I settle in with my (virtual) red pen, knowing that I’ll be hacking and slashing away at tense errors on nearly every page. Present tense does not seem to come naturally to most writers, which leads them to flip-flop between past and present tense. Other errors are common too, such as flashbacks in present tense (They should be in the past tense since they’re in the past.).

Present Tense Con: Everyday Details

I tried to stay positive by focusing on the pros, but this one makes more sense as a con.

A common disadvantage of using the present tense is getting caught up in the everyday details of the character’s lives. Much more so than past tense, present tense novels tend to waste time explaining what characters are eating, how they made their food, the order of operations of their shower, how they choose their clothes, the process of commuting from one place to another, etc.  If you write in present tense, make sure you stick to relevant, interesting information only!

So Which Should You Choose?

Despite the many possible pitfalls and shortcomings of the present tense, when done well, I really enjoy it!  But in my opinion and experience, past tense is generally a better choice.  That said, if you have a fantastic and unique voice that you really want to show off, some interesting action that is better told with an “in the moment” feel, and a plot that does not need to move around in time, present tense can be interesting and exciting.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t write in present tense just for the heck of it. It’s a narrative device, not an arbitrary decision. If you’re on the fence (especially if you’re writing for adults), I would go with past tense.

Also, please note that it is a myth that present tense makes your novel stand out. Check out these stats from the recent Pitch Wars contest. It gives you a pretty good indication of the kind of novels that are being shopped around right now. Take note of how many are in the present tense – it’s a lot!

What do you think about past vs. present tense?

If you have any more questions about tense or any ideas for blog topics, just leave a comment!

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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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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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