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!