For Clear Writing, Use Simple Present or Past Tense

“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.

Sample A

*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.

Sample B

*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.
*He wrote.
She is wrestling.
*She wrestles.

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

  1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  4. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  5. Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  6. 1984 by George Orwell

Present Tense Novels

  1. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  2. Rabbit, Run! by John Updike
  3. Line of Vision by David Ellis
  4. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  5. Behind Her Eyes: A Suspenseful Psychological Thriller by Sarah Pinborough 
  6. Restart by Gordon Korman

Resources

  1. “Blooms Taxonomy of Measurable Verbs:” https://www.utica.edu/academic/Assessment/new/Blooms%20Taxonomy%20-%20Best.pdf
  2. Diana Con Webber: “Change a Noun to a Verb:” https://www.wikihow.com/Change-a-Noun-to-a-Verb
  3. 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/
  4. Grace Fleming. “Powerful Verbs for Your Writing:” https://www.thoughtco.com/powerful-verbs-for-your-writing-1856893
  5. Kathy Steinemann. “100 Ways to Avoid ‘To Be’ Verbs in Writing: “https://kathysteinemann.com/Musings/to-be/
  6. Kenneth Beare. “Non-Continuous-Stative Verbs:” https://www.thoughtco.com/non-continuous-stative-verbs-4176989
  7. Kibin.  “Passive Voice – How to Avoid This Pitfall:” https://www.kibin.com/essay-writing-blog/passive-voice-avoid-writing-pitfall/ 
  8. 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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4 thoughts on “For Clear Writing, Use Simple Present or Past Tense”

  1. Joan,

    Thanks for the reminder to use action verbs and to omit To Be verbs and Ing verbs. This will help me as I proof things for others as well as things I write.

    1. Dear Linda,
      Thanks for writing. You’re welcome for the reminder to use action verbs and to omit To Be verbs and ing verbs. I’m glad you believe this will help you as you proof your writing and the writing of others.

      Do something fun before midnight
      Never Give Up
      Joan

  2. I, too, thank you for the reminder. I remember reading through my entire stepmom manuscript and changing as many “to be” verbs as I could before its final submission. Doing so has helped my writing. 🙂

    Honestly, I think I prefer past tense writing simply because it is what I’m used to.

    Speaking of my stepmom book, I recently “met” on-line with Aidana, the art director, to discuss cover ideas. She had some great ideas. I’m feeling more hopeful about my first book being released in the near future. 🙂

    1. Dear Shawn,
      It is good to hear from you. I’m so glad that you met with Aidana, the art director for 4RV Publishing! She is wonderful. I know she’s going to create a great cover for you. I am excited that your book is getting closer to publication!

      So glad that getting rid of the verbs to be in your manuscript before you did your final submission helped make it stronger.

      You’re good at your writing! Celebrate you!
      Never Give Up
      Joan

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