Before you started writing, did you think about what tense your novel would be in? Probably not, and that’s okay. If you didn’t consider it, you undoubtedly ended up writing in past tense, and there’s good reason for that. But there is a common error that a lot of beginner writers fall into with their first draft. It’s easy to fix, and if you do so you’ll be saving your editor a lot of time (and therefore saving yourself a lot of money!)
Why write in past tense?
You would think that present tense would lend itself to your reader feeling the immediacy of what’s happening. But present tense can be awkward to read, as we don’t talk that way often. Present tense makes your readers’ brains work harder on the mechanics of what you’re saying, causing them to lose track of what is actually happening.
Past tense is the easiest for your reader to understand as it is the one we use most often in everyday language, so it’s easy for your readers to focus on the story you’re weaving. They don’t notice the tense at all, until you get it wrong. And even then, they are unlikely to realize exactly the problem – they probably just get the sense that something is off.
That sense kicks them out of the Storyworld and means they are far more likely to stop reading and move off and do something else. And that risks them not picking your book up again. Don’t let them do that if you can possibly help it!
The 1 main error beginner writers make with writing in past tense
The biggest flaw I spot when I’m editing beginner writer’s manuscripts is that they sometimes accidentally move into present tense.
The reason for this is easy to understand once you know. And the irony is that in doing so, the writer is probably making the scenes in question much stronger. The trick is to go back and edit the manuscript after that first draft is done and spot the tense change.
What type of scene causes a shift from past tense to present?
The reason writers sometimes move into present tense as they write an action scene is because they are imagining the scene in their mind, playing out the various physical moves, and describing them as they ‘see’ them. ‘He jumps to avoid the left hook, but doesn’t notice the leg snaking toward the back of his knee.’
We want these action scenes to be vivid and full of concrete examples of the movements that are happening. This is how we help readers picture exactly what is going on in our Storyworld, and feel the emotions our characters feel as they fight their way out. But even if this is happening, the reader will be pulled away a little bit by the oddness of the tense change. If you can keep it in past tense, the move into the action scene will be seamless and the reader will stay engaged throughout.
Tension and Conflict
The other main scenes where this shift to present tense can occur is any scene where there is tension and conflict, even if there is no fighting involved. As long as there is some form of physical action (it is unlikely you’ll do this while writing about 2 characters sitting having coffee) then as you immerse yourself in the scene to describe it, there’s a chance you move into present tense
How to fix an accidental tense change in your manuscript
Most writers don’t even realize they do this. And the truth is, if you notice it while you’re writing a draft, you may want to continue, rather than going back to fix it.
The fact that you’re picturing the scene so vividly as you write is a great sign that you’ll engage readers. Don’t stop if you think it will hamper the words that are flowing out in your first draft. The trick is to go back and fix things in a pre-edit, before you send it to your editor or send it out for beta testing.
3 tips to find your accidental tense switches
- if you spot you have switched tense as you write your draft, make some form of note in the manuscript so it’s easy to go back and find that scene. I use [tense], as it means I can use the search and find function in Word or in Googledocs.
- if you use an outline or any form of plotting, go through that once you’ve finished your first draft, and highlight the scenes or chapters where you use a lot of action or conflict/tension. Read through these scenes carefully to see if you’ve accidentally switched tenses.
- do a ‘search and find’ for common verbs in the present tense. This is the least effective way to find a tense switch, but depending on what you have written and what verbs you will have used a lot, it may work. Common ones to try are ‘says’, ‘walks’, ‘looks’ and any specific forms of action verbs you might use in your particular manuscript, like ‘jumps’, ‘kicks’, ‘punches’ etc.
Why it’s worth pre-editing your manuscript to fix tense problems
Believe it or not, as an editor I want you to do these tidy ups before I receive your manuscript, for the main reasons check out this blog post. It helps keep the amount of time I work on your novel shorter – and that helps keep the cost low. That is great for you, because you’re more likely to employ me to help you create a professional, polished novel, rather than risking self-publishing without an edit, or just having a friend read it through for errors.
Editing is not just about being a spell-checker. There are many easy things like this that you can do to polish your novel. And there are other, more complicated issues, that I can use my professional eye to find for you. I’d much rather spend my time working on those sections.
If you want to know more, then check out my video on the Gill Hill Edits YouTube channel.
And let me know what you think – I’d love to know if any of these tips help you with your pre-writing!