How to avoid mixing up tenses in your writing

I reviewed a book the other month for one of New Zealand’s magazines, whose author had no idea about how to control his tenses. It was a history book, but he relentlessly muddled up past and future tenses – the rogue word was ‘would’ and ‘would be’.

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427
A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, on New Zealand’s Western Front. Did these guys know what ‘would be’? They had hopes, but couldn’t actually know in detail. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

This is death to historical writing for a whole lot of reasons. First off, from the historical point of view, it implies that the future of the past being written about is inevitable, that stated future events ‘would’ happen as if pre-destined. Actually, events aren’t inevitable that way and it’s wrong of historians to imply that they are.

The other issue is the ridiculous tangle into which such wording puts the tenses. History is about stuff in the past. Writing ‘would’ or ‘would be’ is writing about the future of the past, but from our perspective it’s still our past. That makes the word a kind of ‘future-past’ tense, which starts to tangle up the readers’ sense of place.

The final problem is that this wording also betrays an organisational muddle on the part of the author. The writer used the rogue tenses to present information about what later happened to specific people – an intrusion into the flow of the immediate narrative. Sure, he had the data, but did he have to use it just there? There were, I think, many other places he could have inserted his research.

This sort of problem also affects fiction writers – often more so. I read a short story the other week that began in present tense, wavered into past tense, re-entered present tense, and left me wondering what was going on.

The lesson? Stick with the tense you choose and don’t shift it.

Pure present tense has its advantages, particularly for conveying a dramatic immediacy. It works for fiction and non-fiction alike. Recently, here in New Zealand, a major military history book was written wholly in present tense. It worked, brilliantly.

Future tense is a way of expressing hope and imagined dreams for what might happen.

Where tenses get complicated is when we drop into recursive thinking. What happens if you’re writing about the way people in the past see an event in their future, which is still in the past from the perspective of the current narrative? A flashback, for instance.

The answer isn’t to get into grammatical tangles, but to understand how writing works. It’s a linear thread – has to be, because we can read but one word at a time. However, we think in simultaneous concepts. The skill of writing is to disentangle those concepts into a linear thread – to organise them.

Click to buy
Click to buy

For some more handy hints, tips and methods for writing, check out my short book How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


2 thoughts on “How to avoid mixing up tenses in your writing

  1. Really useful. I often find I like to write in pure present tense to give that sense of immediacy to which you refer. But I often find it’s easy to lapse and slip out of it at certain moments. Always good to read through and spot any inconsistencies in tenses before you publish.

Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s