Pro Writing: How to Maintain Your Tense

How to Maintain Your Writing Tense

No matter what you’re writing, whether it’s a novel, a blog post, or just a tweet, tense is a vital element. Tense is the form of the verb you are using. There are many different tenses to explore, but the most common ones are past, present, and future. Without realizing it, many people switch back and forth between tenses in their writing, and though the reader often doesn’t realize it either, it hurts the quality of your writing in a subtle way. The first step in perfecting your tense is to figure out which one you want to use, and then stick to it.

How to Maintain Your Writing Tense

What tense do I want?

Each tense has a typical use and is usually seen in the same type of environment. The most commonly used tense is present, which is used in most situations. The other uses are past, when you are writing about something that happened to you, and future when you are writing about something that will happen.

I wrote a blog post yesterday = past tense.
I write blog posts sometimes = simple present tense.
I am writing a blog post right now = progressive present tense.
I will write a blog post tomorrow = future tense.

You can see that there are two versions of the present tense that are commonly used. I bring them up because they are both commonly used and they can also be used together. Simple tense applies to things that happen in general, progressive tense applies to things that are happening at this moment (or in progress). For example – I write blog posts every week, and I am writing one right now. I write is simple, I am writing is progressive. They are both present and happening today, and it is fine to use them together. However, it is not fine to switch between past, present, or future (unless of course you are talking about time travel, but even then maybe not).

This is because it can undermine your credibility, not only as a writer, but as a story teller. When you are writing something, even something as simple and literal as a blog post or tutorial, you are telling a story and creating a mental space for your reader to step into while they read, like a glass story box. Every little problem in your writing – like grammar mistakes and tense changes – make a crack in that box, until eventually it breaks, and the story is over. A good story, with good writing, remains inside the box until the writer opens the door and lets the reader out.

How do I keep my tense?

Tense is a tricky thing to get ahold of, and even when you’re looking for it, sometimes it’s hard to catch. The first thing I would recommend is to workshop the last blog post you wrote. Go through the post and make note of all the verbs you used. You can do this on the computer however you may like, though it might be easier to actually print off the post, and highlight every verb used. Don’t worry about tense at first, just highlight every single verb used.

Then, start at the beginning and go through only the highlighted verbs. It’s easier to figure out the tense of the verb you have used when you are only paying attention to the verb itself. Read through the highlighted verbs one by one and write the tense next to each. Use P for Past, N for Now (Present), and F for Future. Hopefully when you get to the end of the post all the letters will be the same, but it’s likely that you’ve at least messed up a few times (I do it too, don’t worry!).

If you have a few that are wrong throughout, take a look at those specific verbs and make a list of them. It’s likely that it is just those specific words and their tenses that made you slip up, and you should make a note of them to ensure that you use the right tenses in the future.

If you have a lot of tenses wrong throughout (AKA a lot of different tenses) then you need to do a little more work. First of all, decide what tense it was you actually wanted to be writing in (likely present). Then go through and take a look at all the verbs that are not in present tense. If there are many of them, it is likely something that you are going to have to consciously work on and edit out on your next few posts. Every time you write a new post, make tense something that you edit for before hitting publish. Do this as long as you need to, and then eventually tense will not be a problem in your writing.

Do you have trouble maintaining tense in your writing?

12 thoughts on “Pro Writing: How to Maintain Your Tense”

  1. Yay! I am so glad to see a new post in your Pro Writing series since we talked about it last week. It’s awesome that you take your reader’s into consideration like that. I can’t wait to read more of these!

    1. Thanks Cristy! I’m glad you liked it! I’m always happy to hear from readers and know more about what they’re looking for from the blog! Thanks for being such a loyal reader!

  2. In fiction writing, the most common tense I see is simple past: He walked. He said. It becomes even more complicated when including flashbacks: if using simple past, the flashback should be in past perfect (He had said), while if using present tense, the flashback should be in simple past. Switching tense all willy nilly is definitely a no no, and knowing which tense to use where can be difficult, but is very important.

    1. I agree Esther, switching tense intentionally in the right places can be a great writing tool, but going about it all willy nilly is dangerous and will really hurt the quality of your writing. Knowing the difference between those past tenses is tricky! Thanks for reading!

  3. It isn’t often I think around my first CW workshop. But this post took me back to my first short story for the class. I lost that story in a horrible computer death, but a fellow student’s comment about tense in my story has stuck with me years later. His last name is Wordlaw, no joke.

    1. Hahah that’s amazing. I’ve been traumatized by many story edits in my time as well. You should write a story about the writing of that story! Thanks so much for reading!

  4. I need to practice this so much. My WIP is 3rd person POV and I’m writing it in past tense but my brain wants to add present tense sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s okay or not and have decided to leave it for editing later :-/

    1. Hey Katie, I find the best way is to write your posts, then step away from them for a few days. Then when you go back to them and re-read it might be clearer whether the tense changes make sense or should be fixed! Thanks for reading! :)

  5. For me, present tense is the hardest to maintain in fiction. But that’s probably because I usually write in past tense. I’m writing something in present tense right now, and I have to keep going back and rereading everything to make sure I’m sticking to the present tense.

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