‘Creative’ use of tense by writers makes me … tense

I’m often accused, even by people who purport to love me, that I’m way too picky about writing when I read. Not everyone was an English major! No one cares!

Yeah? Well I care. And, dear reader, you do, too. You just don’t know it. Things that take you out of the book, even confuse the meaning, are going on all around you and just because you’re oblivous doesn’t mean it’s not affecting your experience. You have no idea how much better that book would be if that one thing wasn’t going on. Or those zillion things.

I have many peeves. Don’t even get me started on point of view change in the middle of a scene. Or middle of a paragraph.

But that’s a rant for another day. Today’s topic? PRESENT TENSE.

[Disclaimer: This is not an attack on any specific writer. I’ve been set off by several podcasts I’ve listened to in the past week in which tortured use of present tense drove me over the edge. But it reminded me how much I hate it in books. Not that I needed reminding.]

The best tense to use in long-form fiction or nonfiction is past tense. Boom.

Let me explain.

It’s virtually impossible to consistently write in present tense when you’re telling a story, particularly a long one.

When you write in present tense, there are still times when you need to use past tense. Most people who try to write an entire book (or podcast) in present tense don’t get that part right. The missteps are distracting and confusing. In some cases, it changes the meaning of a sentence. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen it happen.

Present-tensers also slip up and use past tense instead of present, since it’s hard to maintain that unnatural tense use for a long time. Those slipups also makes things confusing and inconsistent.

I’d give examples, but it’s been a long day. Now that I’ve pointed it out, you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

If you love writing in present tense, I know I’ve upset you.  As I said, it’s been a long day. I don’t have the energy to tip-toe around this topic. I know that my brassy pronouncements make people uncomfortable. The fact I make them sometimes offends people. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong. [Someone I supervised once complained to my boss that I made “brassy pronouncements.” Has that ever been considered a valid complaint against a male supervisor? A blog post for another day. Anyway, I thought it was ridiculous. So now I own it. Brassy as charged. Anyone who doesn’t like it can kiss my brass.]

Back to you, though, present tense-lover. Why are you making so much extra work for yourself? Isn’t writing a book hard enough as it is?

While we’re at it, I want to go on the record on what I call past future perfect tense. It’s uneccesary and annoying. [If there’s a better name for this bizarre usage, I apologize. It’s been a long time since the nuns battered this stuff into me with their smacking rulers and evil glares. I may not know all the terms, but like a nun zeroing in on a student who’s making brassy pronouncements in class, I know what I can’t abide.]

When I was a sports editor, the sportwriters loved past future perfect tense. I hated it. I edited that s*&t right out of their stories. [BTW, it wasn’t any of them who complained about my brassy pronouncements, though I’m sure they didn’t like them.]

Here’s what I’m talking about:

“Bobby Jones would hit five home runs in Friday’s double-header.”

What’s wrong with writing “Bobby Jones hit five home runs in Friday’s double-header”?


My theory is that the sports writers wanted to write like the guys on TV talked. Trying to sound like someone on TV is not an effective model for good writing.

You can disagree with me on all of this. Go ahead. Just keep in mind that if readers are pulled out of your story because they have to try to untangle your storytelling, your writing is doing the opposite of what you want it to do.

And yes, I know this blog post is in present tense. It’s also in second person (a blog post for another day). That’s because it’s short and it’s a blog post. It’s a whole different animal than a long article or book. I also used past tense. I’m doing it now. No wait, I’m not. But I did when I wrote that sentence before I didn’t. I am again! No, I’m not. But I was.

That’s it on that topic.

Below is a photo I took last week of Katahdin from Abol Bridge. It’s got nothing to do with this post, but it makes me happy. Welcome summer!





About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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16 Responses to ‘Creative’ use of tense by writers makes me … tense

  1. John Clark says:

    This is why we need a plethora of grammar faeries.

  2. Alice says:

    Maureen, like you, I cringe at poorly edited writing. Learning from the nuns is deeply embedded, isn’t it?

  3. Maureen, I couldn’t agree more. I have never been able to read more than half a chapter of a book written in present tense and I have cursed more than one author after buying a book that was well reviewed but found to be so. I am reading it in the present so it must have taken place in the past! It is seeming contrived, fake and jarring. I am now shutting up.

  4. Ha! You made me laugh out loud. I love your brassy pronouncements. And hate things that take me out of story. Currently reading Mick Haller, whose books are very good, but he does something else that keeps jerking me out of story–failing to signpost transitions so suddenly I am in someone else’s head. Takes some getting used to.


  5. sandra gardner says:

    Hi Maureen I love this! I agree with you about tenses, etc., wholeheartedly. (however, I was an English major — does that matter?) I’m also a grammar Nazi. Every time I read something that has grammatical errors, I want to throw something –(or hear someone speak incorrectly, including news reporters) Love your snarky humor. More, please. Sandy Gardner sjgardner6@gmail.com ps you did a great critique of one of my mysteries at Crime Bake a few years ago.

    • julianne spreng says:

      Our local reporters have gotten so sloppy with their diction it makes me wonder where they were educated. Locally you’ll almost never hear ‘to be’ in a sentence. It’s ‘The lawn needs mowed or the laundry needs done.’ Used to make me crazy, but I now use this shorthand myself:) Maureen, even when you’re ranting, you make me laugh. Please continue!

    • Maureen Milliken says:

      Yes, and I think I promised to send you formatting info that I never sent. If you still want it, email me at mmilliken47@gmail.com and let me know. I remember enjoying your manuscript a lot!

  6. kaitcarson says:

    Oh, I so agree. I stopped reading a series I loved because the author decided present tense was better. It made me, well, tense!

  7. Amber Foxx says:

    I’ve found three writers who handle present tense well. They use first person so smoothly, I feel as if I’m in the narrator’s head. Third person present tense, so far, seems detached and unnatural to me. Perhaps I haven’t found the author who has mastered it. A blog post about disliking present tense lurks somewhere in my archives, but Virginia King’s Selkie Moon series changed my mind. Hank Phillippi Ryan uses present tense in some of her books, and she changed my mind even more. And Michael Williams’ powerful young adult novel, Now is the Time For Running, broke that barrier completely. My book club read it, and most of them didn’t even notice the tense. It’s one of the few books we chose that we all loved, no exceptions. I’ll never write book in present tense myself, but I’m open to reading them.

  8. kaitlynkathy says:

    Like you, I am irritated by the use of the present tense in novels. It’s even more jarring in historical novels! Makes me wonder what those authors were thinking. I was once asked to blurb one, by that book’s editor. I declined, and told him exactly why I wasn’t able to get past the first page. Clearly he didn’t consider it a problem.

  9. jselbo says:

    I really like present tense (and it might be a holdover from screenwriting days) but I like the immediacy. I like to read how the character is thinking, figuring things out and reacting – not – in retrospect, telling me how they reacted. My Dee Rommel series is in present tense and it feels right for DEE – cause there’s such a coming of age element to her life in these books. I have written in the past tense (historical fiction) and I have enjoyed that too – the all-knowing teller of the story who is around for all the dialogue bits – specific bits of being able to quote exactly what someone said – does a mind trip on me once is awhile – but if the ideas/content is there – I can go with it. One of my pet peeves? “ing” words. the over use of “is” with an “ing” verb. Maureen, I have no idea what “tense” that is but I hate it. I do like reading in past and present tense – if the book is good – it’s good.

    • Maureen Milliken says:

      If someone does present tense well, I find it less jarring. I find very few instances where it’s done well, however.

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