Using the present tense in your writing
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
When we start writing, we have either consciously decided which tense to use or unconsciously. Often we pick something we feel comfortable with or because we like reading in that tense. Sometimes it's just a matter of what fits the story best. One of the things I often come across as an editor (and a teacher) is tense swapping throughout the story. Now, let me be clear, by tense swapping I do not mean using more than one tense, but going from the present tense to the past tense when you shouldn't. Nine out of ten times, it happens because we're not aware.
Today I want to take you through the present tense, which forms can be used, and what other tenses you can add in your writing without the dreaded tense swapping if you use the present tense. I'm not saying that after reading this you won't ever make mistakes again. In order to use the tenses correctly, you really need to know what they are used for, but I will try my best.
First of all, and this might be an open door, the present tense is used when we talk about things that happen now. Don't worry, I'm not here to insult your intelligence; I know you know this. The two present tenses the English language has are the Present Simple and the Present Continuous. My explanation might come across a bit juvenile, but I intend this to be understandable for everybody and not just for those who understand the jargon.
The Present Simple is used to talk about the now, and we often use it to talk about habits, facts, and schedules.
I play the violin.
He drives a car.
They write books.
Simple. It has no embellishments in the form of modal verbs, -ing suffixes, -ed, or its own form. Plain and simple English.
The Present Continuous is used to talk about things that are ongoing now.
I am writing this blog.
You are writing a book.
They are playing a game.
To put it simply, continuous means ongoing. Unlike the present simple, the present continuous needs help from modal verbs and the -ing suffix in order to be formed. The base form of this tense is 'to be + verb + ing'. The 'present' in the naming of this tense indicates that the three forms of 'to be' must be in the present tense (am/are/is) whereas the 'continuous' indicates it needs the - ing suffix to make it 'ongoing' (try saying 'ing' and see how long you can allow the sound to go on).
Note: despite its name being present perfect, this tense has very little to do with the present and everything with the past. I'll get to that in another blog.
There are many ways to recognise the tenses, by using key words, for example. In your writing, these key words may help you see which tense you have used, and you can check if you have used the correct one.
Present Simple: often, never, always, sometimes, regularly, frequently, on <add day of the week>, every day/week/month/year, in the weekend.
Present Continuous: now, right now, listen, look, watch (out) --> in this case, think of words or phrases that 'show' you something is ongoing.
When you decide to start using the present tense, these are the two tenses you will use the most. Does that mean you can't swap then? Of course you can, but you should know when and why, and there are really only two reasons to do so:
When you refer to something that happened in the past.
When you refer to something that is going to happen in the future.
Makes sense, right?
This is often where it gets confusing because when do you go from your present tense to your past tense? Let's say our character is called Suzy. Suzy is having a really bad day. Her boyfriend has just broken up with her, and she's really heartbroken. She's wrapped in a blanket on the couch, watching a romcom on Netflix, but her thoughts wander back to the moment where her boyfriend broke up with her. It could look something like this:
I thought I had it all figured out. He would propose, I would say yes, and we would get married within a year somewhere on a tropical island with only our friends and family. And each other, of course. I didn't see it coming. How was I supposed to know he no longer felt the same way? His words ripped my soul apart and broke my heart into a thousand pieces. But the worst thing was when he picked up his bag, left, and didn't come back. I sigh when I realise my thoughts wandered off again. I try to focus on the movie, but I can't. No matter how hard I try, my thoughts return to Aron and the ease with which he'd broken up with me. I still can't believe I had not seen the signs. With a heavy sigh, I rise to my feet, dragging the blanket with me as I make my way to the bed. I can't even be bothered to switch off the tv--it will go off eventually.
In the above piece of writing, the part in italics refers back to the past; the part in bold mostly takes us back to the now, but you can even see there that there is some past. This is because the one telling us the story is still referring to the past. However, the main narrative is present.
Let's take the second to last sentence.
With a heavy sigh, I rise to my feet, dragging the blanket with me as I make my way to the bed.
This is the kind of sentence where tense swapping usually unintentionally occurs.
With a heavy sigh, I rise to my feet, dragging the blanket with me as I made my way to the bed.
Technically, you can't swap tenses in the same sentence (not to be confused with a main sentence followed by a subordinate clause (different subject).
In the second example, I have changed make to made, and this would be wrong because in this case, the entire sentence is present tense, so all the verbs need to be, too (this goes for the past tense as well but again, different subject). This is what I mean by tense swapping.
Let's take another example to explain why that is not considered swapping.
No matter how hard I try, my thoughts return to Aron and the ease with which he'd broken up with me.
The present tense verbs in this case are 'try' and 'return'; the past (perfect) tense is 'he'd broken up'. The ending of this sentence 'with which he'd broken up with me' indicates it has already happened in the past, so at the point of the narrative, the main character and her boyfriend are no longer together.
If I were to make this sentence completely present, we would change the meaning:
No matter how hard I try, my thoughts return to Aron and the ease with which he is breaking up with me.
In this sentence, 'with which he is breaking up with me' indicates it's happening now (and then the present continuous would be better than the present simple because you want to point out it's ongoing).
Other tenses you will use when you write in the present tense are the future tenses. Because it's an entirely different species of tenses, I will go more in depth in another blog, but for reference, I will show you your options.
Present Simple: to talk about schedules such as those of public transport or schools.
Present Continuous: to talk about plans you've made for the future. It's certain.
Will: to talk about spontaneous ideas or a more uncertain future.
'to be' going to: to talk about plans you've made for the future, it's certain. You can also use it for things that are on the way. It's often confused with the form of the Present Continuous.
Future perfect: to say something will have been done, completed or achieved by a certain time in the future.
Future continuous: to say something will be ongoing at a particular moment in the future.
I hope this has given you some insight into the present tense and what it looks like when swapping occurs when it shouldn't. Leave a comment if you have a question!