by Taylor Berman
I do a lot of reading. A lot. I also do a lot of free editing for my friends, and most of them it seems, don’t even bother to edit themselves before they send their drafts off to me. It’s a good idea to have your work proof-read and edited before you send it off to an agent or a publisher. If your manuscript is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors it looks unprofessional, and many agents and publishers won’t take you seriously. But before you even send it to a friend, try to edit it yourself. Read it over. Make sure what you’re reading actually makes sense.
So where am I going with all of this? One of the worst mistakes I’ve come across while editing is the improper use of verb tenses. What I will do, is rant to you about the misuse and mixing of verb tenses in writing and why it bothers me to no end. I’ll also provide you with some helpful hints about how to avoid this in your own writing.
Now I’m not saying it’s never okay to switch verb tenses. That’s not the case at all. Say your story is written in the present tense, and your narrator is reflecting on something that happened in the past. In this case you would need to switch tenses. I’m talking about switching tenses for no apparent reason. Starting off a story that’s in present tense and then randomly switching to past tense half way through a paragraph, or even worse, a sentence. Now you may be thinking “oh psh, who even does that?” Unfortunately way too many people.
Here are some simple guidelines to help you avoid making this grammar faux-pas.
1) Find your comfort zone. Most people are more comfortable writing in a certain tense. Find yours and stick to it. I personally prefer to write my fiction in past tense, so I tend not to stray from that.
2) Don’t change the tense once you’ve written it. Some people change the tense of their work to try an fit guidelines after they’ve written it. Your publisher prefers stories written in present tense, but yours is in past? Who cares? You wrote it in past tense, leave it in past tense. Trying to change it will just confuse you, and chances are, you’re going to miss a lot of the verbs.
3) Double, Triple, Quadruple read. I cannot stress this enough. Read what you’ve written. Read it in your head, read it out loud, read it over and over and make sure it sounds right. If it doesn’t sound right out loud – it probably isn’t. Can’t tell if it sounds right? Don’t be afraid to ask someone.
4) Know your tenses. There’s more than just past, present and future tenses. In the English language there’s simple present, simple past, simple future, present perfect, past perfect, future perfect, present progressive, past progressive, future progressive, present perfect progressive, past perfect progressive, and future perfect progressive. Learn them all. Learn how and when to use each tense.
Follow these rules and you should be golden.