“For Clear Writing, Use Simple Present or Past Tense” by Joan Y. Edwards
For many years all the novels I knew were published in simple past tense. About ten years ago, I learned that some books made publication in present tense. Which is better? What are the reasons for using each?
Traditional readers may prefer the simple past tense. It’s the way most novels we’ve read have been written. But there’s nothing wrong with the present tense, except that many readers are not used to it. Younger readers or readers who are open to new ways of writing, such as teens and young adults, may relate better to the books written in present tense. It probably boils down to a personal choice, no matter what your age.
Is it always better to use the straight and simple past tense in writing your novel? Many experts believe that simple past tense is better. It states actions clearly. Whatever tense you use, use it consistently throughout your whole novel. If your readers get confused about the time constraints, they might put the book down. You want your readers to hang on with you from the beginning to the end.
Whether you are writing in present or past tense, stay away from the verbs to be and the past perfect helping verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had. They may cloud your meaning. Eliminate them unless they are absolutely necessary.
In doing my research for this blog, I studied the first pages of best selling novels. I discovered that many of them use have and has, was and were, in addition to the simple past tense.
*John cleared the snow with his plow yesterday morning.
*John clears the snow with his plow every morning.
John was clearing the snow with his plow.
John has been clearing the snow with his plow.|
John could have been clearing the snow with his plow.
*Jane bought a new pair of shoes on the first day of spring.
*Jane buys a new pair of shoes each spring.
Jane is buying a new pair of shoes.
Jane might be buying a new pair of shoes.
Jane has been buying a new pair of shoes.
Grace Fleming suggested that you make a verb out of a noun, such as animals or parts of the body.
Sarah snaked her way into the CEO’s office.
Sam weaseled his way out of attending the staff meeting.
Tonya elbowed her way to the pizza counter.
Tessie headed to the gym.
Kathy Steinemann gives great pointers on how to leave out the verbs to be and write clearly.
The tiger was behind the tree.
*The tiger hid behind the tree.
Use more precise language. “Hid” gives a clearer picture than the word “was.”
Steinemann also says that “Continuous verbs weaken your writing.” Continuous verbs are formed by combining to be with the present participle (-ing form) of another verb.
Examples of continuous verbs:
He was writing.
She is wrestling.
See how the experts handle tense in these best selling books. Use Amazon’s LOOK INSIDE feature to see the beginning pages of each novel.
Past Tense Novels
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
- Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
- 1984 by George Orwell
Present Tense Novels
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- Rabbit, Run! by John Updike
- Line of Vision by David Ellis
- One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
- Behind Her Eyes: A Suspenseful Psychological Thriller by Sarah Pinborough
- Restart by Gordon Korman
- “Blooms Taxonomy of Measurable Verbs:” https://www.utica.edu/academic/Assessment/new/Blooms%20Taxonomy%20-%20Best.pdf
- Diana Con Webber: “Change a Noun to a Verb:” https://www.wikihow.com/Change-a-Noun-to-a-Verb
- Ellen Brock. “Pros and Cons of Writing Your Novel in Past VS Present Tense:” https://ellenbrockediting.com/2014/01/07/pros-and-cons-of-writing-your-novel-in-past-vs-present-tense/
- Grace Fleming. “Powerful Verbs for Your Writing:” https://www.thoughtco.com/powerful-verbs-for-your-writing-1856893
- Kathy Steinemann. “100 Ways to Avoid ‘To Be’ Verbs in Writing: “https://kathysteinemann.com/Musings/to-be/
- Kenneth Beare. “Non-Continuous-Stative Verbs:” https://www.thoughtco.com/non-continuous-stative-verbs-4176989
- Kibin. “Passive Voice – How to Avoid This Pitfall:” https://www.kibin.com/essay-writing-blog/passive-voice-avoid-writing-pitfall/
- Quick and Dirty Tips. “Present Tense Books:” https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/present-tense-books
Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you find it interesting to read.
Please leave a comment letting me know your preferred tense for reading novels, present tense or past tense and why.
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards
Copyright © 2019 Joan Y. Edwards
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