Reading in Library

The Treehouse Blog

Convoluted verb tenses can bog down the reader so it’s important to wrap your head around it as a writer. Think of it as another tool in your writers’ tool box. Knowing this will tighten up your writing and build trust with your readers.

In this post I am going to focus on present, past, past perfect and habitual past tenses. These are the most prevalent in fiction today.

Before I do that, I am going to explain the difference between simple tense, perfect tense and progressive tense.

Simple tense does not actually mean “simple” because they are easy. They refer to actions that happen at a single point in time.

  • Present tense – a present moment in time.

  • Past tense – a past moment in time.

  • Future tense – a future moment in time.

The perfect tenses deal with actions that span a period of time, which make it perfect for commercial fiction.

  • Present perfect – deals with an action that began in the past and continues up to the present time.

  • Past perfect – deals with an action that began at a more distant point in the past and ended at a more recent point in the past.

  • Future perfect – deals with an action that begins in the present or in the near future and ends by some more distant point of time in the future.

Then you have progressive tenses. These tenses stand apart from the main six (above) to emphasize that the action of the verb is in progress.

  • Present progressive – I am working on it even as we speak.

  • Past progressive – I was working on it when you called.

  • Future progressive – I will be working on it all next week.

There’s also a group of perfect progressive tenses. Everything above is in the active voice. Perfect progressive is the passive voice of writing.

  • Present perfect progressive – The car has been washed by Mike.

  • Past perfect progressive – The car had been washed by Mike.

  • Future perfect progressive – The car will have been washed by Mike.

See the image below for a visual representation of tense. I’m a visual learner and seeing it like this helps to cement the concepts.


Now that you have a basic refresher in verb tenses, let’s move on to using present tense in your writing.

Present Tense

You’ll most likely see the present tense used for scientific theories, how-to books, and all dramatic literature. When you’re writing about something that happens repeatedly, the present tense is required.

As with anything, there are exceptions. In short stories, the present tense narrative makes sense because space is limited.

There are four types of present tense you should know if you decide to use the present.

Simple present: I go to the library

Present perfect progressive: I have been going to the library

Present perfect: I have been to the library

Present progressive: I am going to the library

Pros of present tense:

  • It’s great if you want to close the distance between the reader and viewpoint character.

  • Works well for short fiction.

Cons of present tense:

  • It’s mainly used to make statements of fact and to make generalizations.

  • It’s difficult to manage if there’s more than one viewpoint character all operating in the present tense.

  • Can be exhausting for readers because it’s emotionally immersive.

I recommend saving present tense for how-to books and for short fiction. Let’s move on to the past tense, which is the most popular among fiction writers today.

Past Tense

Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game and Pathfinder, said, “Almost every story you’ll ever read or hear is in the past tense. Newspapers, broadcast news, history, science, gossip, and fiction—the overwhelming majority of these storytelling forms use the past tense. It’s what most audiences expect when they pick up a work of fiction.”

Readers are so used to the past tense that they have no trouble immersing themselves in the story as if it’s happening now. Using past tense is almost invisible to the reader, and that's why I highly encourage my clients to use this tense.

“The past tense is the choice of most contemporary commercial fiction writers. What’s interesting is that readers are so used to this style that they can still immerse themselves in a past tense narrative as though the story is unfolding now.” - Louise Harnby

Here’s the five types of past tense.

Simple Past: I went to the library / He went to the library

Past perfect progressive: I had been going to the library / He had been going to the library

Past Perfect: I had gone to the library / He had gone to the library

Past progressive: I was going to the library / He was going to the library

Habitual past: I would go to the library every week / I used to go to the library every week

*Used for when you want to reference an event from your novel’s past that happened habitually. You use would and used to.

What you want to watch out for when writing in the past tense, especially for new writers, is when you reference events that happened in the story’s past. You will most likely need to use past perfect.

If you want your reader to experience the now of your novel, then you would write in the simple past, or past progressive.

But, if you want to write about something that happened in the novel’s past, then you would use past perfect.

Pros of past tense:

  • It’s much easier to shift the distance between the reader and the narrator.

  • Readers don’t get tired of past tense as long as the writing is strong.

Cons of past tense:

  • Past tense writing can be flat if the author doesn’t take care.

  • Fight scenes, escapes, and arguments can be arduous if the writing isn’t lean and rich.

You may be wondering if it’s okay to mix past and present tenses within a sentence or paragraph. There are three situations where you can do that.

  1. If you’re using an omniscient point of view and the narrator deliberately interrupts the action.

  2. When a first-person point of view talks directly to the reader.

  3. When a sentence, or part of it, refers to information that is factual and current.

I suggest writing in the tense you feel most comfortable with that will accomplish what the story requires.

I did not go into too much detail about future tense because the main two you want to focus on are present and past tense. See above for future tense examples or click on one of the sources below to learn more.

If you would like to learn more about verb tenses, these are the resources I’ve referenced.

Tenses in fiction writing: Present, past, past perfect, and habitual past

The McGraw-Hill Education Handbook of English Grammar & Usage

Editing Fiction at Sentence Level

All English tenses in 20 minutes – Basic English Grammar (YouTube video)

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This is the second post in my narrative viewpoint series.

I talked about Voice in week one. Click here to read.

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This is the first post in my Narrative Viewpoint Series.


Viewpoint is something that should be decided during the early stages, or addressed during developmental editing. Find out more in my post about the different types of editing.

Viewpoint is one of the main things new authors get twisted up about when writing their stories.

Narrative viewpoint, or point of view, describes the head we were in while reading the story.


While editors and writers have different opinions on the best points of view, they ‌agree that nailing your POV is important. The benefits are substantial.

  • In the same way, a good perspective will breathe life into your story, a bad perspective will deflate it.

  • Having a clear POV will help you save money when hiring an editor.


A master editor, Sol Stein, said in his book, “Stein on Writing, “It can be said that one slip of point of view by a writer can hurt a story badly, and several slips can be fatal.”


I like Steins' definition of point of view, “It means the character whose eyes are observing what happens, the perspective from which a scene or story is written.”


The reason it’s so important is POV is how your reader will relate to the world you built. It’s the camera lens in which you tell your story.


It helps the reader feel safe and trusting you to lead them on a journey. Problems with POV will jar the reader and undermine the effectiveness of your story. It will keep them from investing deeply in your story.


VOICE


When it comes time to speak the words of your story, whose voice will we hear?


Who is telling the story?


Is it the voice you use when speaking to your mother?


Or how about the voice you use with your friends at a bar watching the football game?


Everyone has different voices for different situations and relationships. I don’t use the same voice at home as I do at work. I’m a supervisor at work, and using that authority at home would not sit well with my husband.


When it comes to telling a story, a whole new world opens up.


Let’s look at an example from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.


“Why is that women don’t make war, I wonder?”

“Ye’re no made for it, Sassenach.” His hand cupped my cheek, hard and rough. “And it wouldna be right; you women take so much more with ye, when ye go.”

“What do you mean by that?”

He made the small shrugging movement that meant he was looking for a word or notion, an unconscious movement, as though his coat was too tight, though he wasn’t wearing one at the moment.

“When a man dies, it’s only him,” he said. “And one is much like another. Aye, a family needs a man, to feed them, protect them. But any decent man can do it. A woman…” His lips moved against my fingertips, a faint smile. “A woman takes life with her when she goes. A woman is… infinite possibility.”


There’s no question as to who’s speaking when you’re reading this series. Right away you know this is Jamie, even without a dialogue tag.


You, as the author, have to get “in character” when writing certain POVs. It’s almost like acting. You talk how they would talk. This is what I mean by voice.


Whether you’re writing in first person or third, you can dip into an original personality when you approach it like this.


Deciding on which voice you want to use is only the first step with a narrative viewpoint.


The next step is to learn about tense.


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Updated: Apr 30

For every editor you meet, there are differing opinions on the “types” of editing, but for clarity’s sake, I am going to explain the four main “umbrellas” of each kind. By the end, you’ll be able to decide for yourself which editing is right for you.


Traditional publishing houses know how important editing is to satisfy readers, because a few point-of-view slip-ups here, or a few grammar mistakes there, will bring out the worst in readers, and they use that in their reviews.


Here’s a quote from Louise Harnby’s book “Editing Fiction at Sentence Level” that sums this up nicely:


“The mainstream publishing industry knows a thing or two about bringing high-quality books to market, and so it should — it’s been doing it for long enough. Publishers take their books through multiple rounds of editing. The writer who seeks to mimic that process is the writer who’s least likely to garner negative reviews, and the most likely to build fans. That’s key because fans won’t just buy this book; they’ll buy the next book, and the one after that, and the one after that.”


1. Developmental Editing


A developmental editor looks at the big picture. It’s the foundation on which you build your entire story.


It mainly deals with:

  • Character

  • Plot

  • Stake

  • Pacing

  • Genre

  • Narrative viewpoint

  • Tense

  • Story arc

Think macro instead of micro. The editor looks at your book ‌and helps you identify any missing pieces to your story. Whether you need to create more intimacy with your characters or fix gaping plot holes, developmental editors help you speak directly to your ideal readers.

Below, I’ve listed questions you can ask yourself to determine whether your book is ready for developmental editing. You can find these questions in Tiffany Yates Martin’s book, Intuitive Editing.

  1. Have you polished a draft to the best of your abilities, but know it’s still not quite “there” yet?

  2. Have you received constructive feedback from beta readers, crit groups, or writing partners, but aren’t sure how to incorporate it into revisions?

  3. Have you submitted to agents and gotten no nibbles?

  4. Have you submitted to agents and gotten some interest, but no offers?

  5. Are you self-publishing?

If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, you may be ready to hire a developmental editor.

  1. Are you stuck or blocked?

  2. Are you midway through a draft and need help to finish it?

  3. Do you have a bunch of great material/scenes, but no idea how to knit them into a cohesive narrative?

  4. Do you have a great idea and need help writing it?

If you answered yes to three of the questions above, then you are not ready to hire a developmental editor.


If it becomes apparent that your manuscript needs developmental editing, but your budget is tight, you can consider getting an editorial assessment instead.


Or you can download my FREE workbook:


How to Self-Edit Your Novel Before Hiring an Editor
.pdf
Download PDF • 2.54MB

2. Line Editing


Next comes line editing, my favorite.


It’s the stage where an editor looks at every single sentence and smooths it out. It’s like vacuuming. You start out with a rug full of crumbs and dirt, but once you get the vacuum out, and go back and forth a few times, everything is clean again.


Line editors look at:

  • Decluttering verbs

  • Sorting out filler words

  • Flagging unneeded explanations

  • Downplaying excessive adjectives and adverbs

  • Removing unnecessary modifiers

  • Fixing dangling or misplaced modifiers

  • Reducing repeated descriptions

  • Streamlining dialogue

  • Checking for passive voice

  • Fixing convoluted verb tenses

  • Tweaking ambiguous phrases

  • Correcting awkward narrative and dialogue

I wholeheartedly believe this is where the magic happens when editing a book.


It’s like an artist adding shading and color to their painting. Line editing breathes life into your book and keeps readers turning the page.


For line editing to make sense, however, your story needs to be developmentally sound, otherwise, it’s a waste of time.


Check out my FREE Checklist that will help you determine if your book needs developmental editing, or if you’re ready for line editing.



Do I need developmental editing
.pdf
Download PDF • 78KB

3. Copy Editing


Copyeditors are the mechanics of grammar and punctuation. They are your best defense against the “grammar police” and will eliminate critical reviews that focus on whether you put the comma in the right place or not.


Their focus is on:

  • Grammar

  • Punctuation

  • Hyphenation

  • Capitalization

  • Fact-checking

They focus on the nuts and bolts of your sentences to make sure they are correct. No loose ends.


A lot of editors will combine line editing with copyediting, as I do because the two work together well. I find it quite easy to smooth out a sentence and correct grammar at the same time because it’s helpful to my clients.


Not every editor does this. When looking for an editor, ask them specifically ‌what they do and make sure it fits your needs.


4. Proofreading


A lot of authors use the term “proofreading” to mean all forms of editing when, in reality, it’s the last stop before publication. They look for surface-level errors before‌ the book hits the shelves because traditional publishing houses know that, even if a book has been through multiple rounds of edits, humans are not error-free.


Take this blog post, for example. It will have an error, even though I am an editor. Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, coined by Jed Hartman, says that “any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one error.”


So that’s why the publishing industry came up with proofreading. It’s checking the “proof” before it’s sent to the printers. It’s the last chance humans have to get as many mistakes cleaned up before readers dive in.


Conclusion


Now you should have a basic understanding of the different types of editing and which one you need.


If your story is structurally sound and you’ve worked out the major kinks, then line editing and copyediting could be your next step.


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