Tense, Tense, Tense!

So, I’ve been feeling a little tense these days.

Alright, even I’m not in the mood for my weak sense of humor today…so, I’ll get to the real reason for the post and it’s about something that is frustrating  enough that I stopped writing in my latest manuscript to post this.  It’s about that ever pesky thing called past tense narrative.   I suppose this is going to be a bit boring, but I’ve got to let off some steam.  And if you’ve ever run into this as an issue, I have a quick fix for you at the end.

So, here’s the thing.  When I wrote the first manuscript, and began working with the editor, Caroline Upcher, (www.carolineupcher.com) she REALLY got on me for switching up tenses – right in the middle of a chapter for example.  She wrote, and I quote, “WHY do you keep doing this???  Please fix it.”   Yikes.

Honestly?  I never thought I’d have an issue keeping myself on track when it came to appropriately affixing the proper tense when writing.  I mean, how hard is it when you’re told, “most novels are written in a past tense narrative?”  Easy, you say?  Fine, maybe for you, but for me, it’s something I find I’m struggling to get right and I can’t even explain why.

And, the first manuscript wasn’t the only one.  Thank GOD when I submitted my second for her to read, I’d gone through it time and again to correct where I found myself slipping.  Thing is…I don’t EVEN KNOW HOW IT HAPPENS.  Or is that, I don’t EVEN KNOW HOW IT HAPPENED?  See what I mean?  Such a subtle difference, but egad, I’ve been pulling my hair out on writing this third book and getting it right.   It’s more than just remembering to use “ed” on your verbs.

Consider these two passages;

Our house was gray in color.  Not because it was painted gray, but because it had no paint at all.  It had become weathered by the sun, rain and wind, and it always reminded me of a bleak winter day.  There was only one big room that held the kitchen sink, stove, icebox, a couch and chair.  There was only one bedroom, divided by a heavy blanket.

Our house is gray in color.  Not because it’s painted gray, but because it has no paint at all.   It has become weathered by the sun, rain and wind, and it always reminds me of a bleak winter day.  It has one big room that holds the kitchen sink, stove, icebox, couch and a chair.  There is only one bedroom, divided by a heavy blanket.

In both instances, “ed” has been used on words like painted, weathered, divided…so, which is past tense?  Which isn’t?

The first paragraph is past tense because of the use of “was”, “had” “held” etc.   The second is present because of “has,” “is” “hold,” etc.  How do I know?  Well, without getting into all of the grammatical explanations that Grammer Girl,  http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/offered up about “implicatures” , “relevancy” and the like, I found another nifty site that spells it out in a manner I can relate to without feeling like I’m in English class.

Go here:  http://voices.yahoo.com/past-tense-creative-writing-keywords-watch-4579525.html?cat=38

And follow the instructions to eliminate key words specifically tied to tense, by doing a find, and then correcting them.  Voila!  Problem solved.



Haha – I hear you! Well, I can’t imagine teaching it…b/c it seems like it would be so easy but it isn’t – not at all! There are so many variables that come into play … I suppose some comfort I got from doing a bit of research on the issue shows there are others who struggle with it as well… it appears to be a common problem for many writers.


You hit the nail on the head. I started to put something about that in there too…I think Grammar Girl addresses it…but passive voice gets mixed up with present tense and using verbs with the “ed.” It’s hard to even distinguish the two from what I could tell! My goal of 1,000 wpd keeps getting shot b/c I keep having to fix my tense. Groan. I’ll go back and read something I wrote yesterday, for example, and damn if I’m not doing it again! Wished ‘d had a professor to try and beat it out of me…LOL!


    Key word – “Tried”! Lol. I taught AP Composition last year and I’ll be teaching it again next year. When we started talking about this passive voice thing I was like, “Crap, I’m no better at this than I was before.” Very hard to teach writing, but I find I do learn when I’m teaching something that is my weakness…just an uncomfortable place to be in.


Are we talking passive and active voice too? Sounds like same idea. That’s my major problem. I write in passive voice and don’t even know I’m doing it. A prof I had in grad school tried to beat it out of me by not letting me use any “to be” verbs in my two page analysis papers. Almost had a nervous breakdown that semester!


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