I’ve spent a lot of time looking at student writing this last week–catching up on my paper grading over spring break–and I’ve noticed a really common problem: tense shifts. It’s something I used to do a lot when I was an undergrad, so it’s comforting, in a way, to see that I wasn’t just being freakishly stupid at the time. It’s also clear to me that while it’s a really easy mistake to make, it’s also a difficult issue to notice in your own writing. After all, you know what you mean.

Just to be clear, this is a tense shift: Ginger was walking on the beach looking for coconuts. Gilligan walks over and tells her she looks slutty in her dress. Ginger had enough of his lip, so she smacks him. They kissed.

OK, yes, that’s terrible writing. Sorry, I was having a Gilligan’s Island moment. You know what that’s like, I’m sure.

Anyway, the little piece of bad writing moves back and forth between past and present tense. It breaks the rules, so we don’t know when it is, and it becomes confusing and annoying very quickly. And then the editor tosses your manuscript into the gigantic recycle pile and moves on to the next story. People, DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU! Tense shifts are another in a long list of good reasons to have people you know and trust look over your writing. If you discover that you have a tense shift problem, just recognize that it’s something you need to watch for.

Even more importantly, though, tense is something everyone should probably take more seriously in their writing. It’s more than just choosing between past and present. If you select past, for example, you need to decide how far in the past it is. And that’s a really complicated beast. If it’s immediate past (very common), you’re reporting on stuff that just happened. This means you don’t have the ability to really reflect on lessons learned or how the actions/events have changed you. If you want to do that, you need to switch into storytelling mode, and decide just how far into the past you’re writing from. This can turn into a frame for your story which, as I’ve said before, can be a very effective technique.

Just be careful not to create the dreaded tense violation, where you’re using immediate past, for example, and then drop in a comment that in later years you would come to regret drinking that sixth margarita, say, or challenging the football player to a fistfight in the alley.

Now, go write–in the present!

About the author

Meriah Crawford Meriah is an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, a writer, and a private investigator. She has published literary and mystery/crime short stories, and a variety of nonfiction articles and encyclopedia entries.