Writing Is A Bad Habit: A Tense Agreement a.k.a. The Importance of, duh, Tense Agreement As An Element of Style

Yes, that was a pun in the title, though a very simple and obvious one. Groans are appreciated.

Seriously, though, this week we need to talk about the importance of tenses and tense agreement, specifically through the lens of the style of your writing. Now, obviously, keeping your tenses straight when writing is critical. The tenses you use form what could be likened as time-stamps for the actions that are described in the book. When these time-stamps are misused, confusion reigns supreme!

That much is obvious. We all know as writers that tense agreement and proper grammar for those tenses is critical. One thing that might not be as obvious, though, is how the tenses we use for our writing can play havoc with the writing styles and formats of our pieces.

This may seem like a nitpick of sorts, as most books tend to be written either in the traditional past tense, mimicking the notion that we are being told these stories after their completion, or the more unusual-but-growing present tense, to try to create a sense of immediacy and, in a first-person piece especially, create a deeper sense of immersion and reader connectedness to the viewpoint character. In these typical style frameworks, the choices of tense are usually obvious.

However, some style frameworks might require more intricate attention to be paid to tenses. For example, take a work that is comprised of journal entries. There may be a need to mix past and present tense more freely than in other works, as some elements of each entry may reflect immediate thoughts and musings from the journal’s writer at the time they write it, while many other parts will be past tense as they transcribe past events in their journal. Even the first-person present style mentioned above has a definite place for past tense passages if the viewpoint character adds memories and other past references to the immediate narrative.

If you don’t pay close attention to these tense shifts, you can create a sense of disconnection for the reader, as they try to understand what events are happening in what order. Also, the human mind is actually pretty good at catching things that ‘sound wrong’, which only adds to that sense of disconnection on a subconscious level as passages ‘sound wrong’ due to tense agreement errors. At worst, you can breed total confusion for the reader as to the order of events in the story and lead to a tangled plot that makes your reader want to stop reading.

The fixes are simple enough. Careful editing is key, as well as keeping a consistent writing style and sticking to an established framework for the tale. I find that speaking lines aloud helps catch things that ‘sound wrong’ and can then lead you to the actual grammatical and stylistic errors. And obviously, let’s not discount the best way to catch errors of any kind and that is to have multiple eyes read over the work before it is put out into the world. Beta readers and third-party editors are a must.

Well, folks, that’s all for now. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below. Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!


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