The Controversial Usage of The Present Tense


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I’m currently working on writing a book and I’m tens of thousands of words into this book, which has been written thus far in the present tense when suddenly I start to get this troubling feeling that I’m doing it wrong. The writing just didn’t seem right anymore. Tens of thousands of words into this book and I get this feeling, it was pretty upsetting to say the least. So I stop and I think to myself, ‘maybe I should be writing this in the past tense and not the present tense’. ‘But what’s the difference, and why am I so worried about it?’ ‘Is it really going to the change the feel of the book just because I’m telling it in a different tense?’ So, long and deliberating story short – I worked myself into a good and proper frenzy over whether or not I should be writing this book in the past or present tense. I tried to write little sections of the book in both tenses and then compared the feel and I just became more unsure; they both seemed to flow just fine.

Enter the Google machine. Google machine always makes all things right, and if it doesn’t… well it all goes to hell in a hand basket. Surely though, the Google Machine will fix this. So off I skip over the interwebs and through cyberspace to the Page-Brin house I go. I was expecting to find scholarly documents and writing club tips on the ‘pros and cons of the present tense vs the past tense’, only to be misled into the dark and tortured forest that is the tense debate about using the present tense.

Well, apparently there’s a great many people who have built up quite a hatred for the present tense, that much was clear to me from the very start. The problem I had was in finding out why people are slinging so very much mud at the good old (current?) present tense. At first I came across explanations like “because every time I pick up a book and it’s in the present tense I want my money back”. Right, but why? “Because the present tense sucks.” Okaaay, but why? “Because it can’t do anything that the past tense can’t do.” Although I find that answer to be a fallacy, it also caused me to question, if it does the same this as your precious past tense then why do you hate it so much?

After what seemed like half a day’s worth of scouring the internet I finally started to stumble onto articles that were able to explain this crazy phenomenon. Some people said that it just has to do with the Human Condition and our aversion to change. Most books are written in the past tense, any diversion from that simply freaks some people out. It makes them feel awkward, and instead of fighting through the awkwardness they just put the book down. This explanation, although helpful in staunching my curiosity, hadn’t helped me one bit in deciding whether it was better to write my book in the past or the present tense. So I moved on.

Finally, after talking to friends and family members and reading internet articles pertaining to this whole debacle which has literarily (get it..? Uhg I’m so punny it kills me) consumed my life I began to be able to articulate that which I so desperately felt the need to know. First off, I had found that when being completely honest about the facts it isn’t actually the present tense that people so vehemently hate; it’s the execution.  It’s simply natural to speak in the past tense when telling a story, because typically the story has already happened. However in our (equally natural) need to change and evolve, storytelling has become more than relaying tales of adventures past. Some story tellers want to relay a story and really get their readers to feel exactly what the characters are feeling as they are feeling it in its most pure and organic form. This is when one should truly use the present tense, when they want to create a sense of immediacy and ever-flowing action. The author should use the present tense when they want to scoop the reader up and take them right into the fray of things.

The present tense is really a great and powerful tool. Aye, but here’s the rub – With great power comes great responsibility. The present tense, unlike our dear old friend Past Tense, is not a familiar and every day form of verbal expression. Therefore, it takes more practice to properly wield this tool. The unfortunate fact is that most of the wordsmiths who brandish the weapon that is The Present Tense simply haven’t spent enough time in the practice field with it before rushing into the on-going battle that is The Published Word. Hence, the literature more often than not comes out erratic and unexplainably unsettling. The misguided and ill-informed reader grasps onto the first glaring difference they can shake their stick of shame at, and more often than not The Present Tense is blamed for author’s inexperience. Well, no wonder The Present is so tense.

In case, Readers, you are wondering – I’m still tensely confused about whether to write my book as happening in the past or present. Ah well, maybe I’ll know in the future.


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