Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Grammar for Writers—Tenses Make Me Tense

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

Does your writing suffer from irregular tenses? Consistent tense is essential for the health of your manuscript and protects your reader and editor from timeline whiplash.

“Typically, we find students have trouble staying in a consistent tense throughout their blog, article, or novel,” said Leilani Squires, writer for Prison Fellowship International and writing mentor. “And until it’s pointed out to them, they don’t realize their mistake. It takes practice.”

Freelance writer Michelle Cox evaluates manuscripts at conferences and finds that “Writers will begin a paragraph or section in one tense and then switch back and forth between past and present.”

Do these symptoms sound familiar?
  • A rash of “ing” verbs. This indicates passive writing and a future tense. “Dreaming of large checks arriving in the mail, we will be writing in future tense.”
  • Manuscripts pocked with action words that end with an “s” are present tense. “The writer crunches vitamin M’s (M&Ms) and drinks copious amounts of black current tea while she types.”
  • Doses of “ed” words point to past tense. This is the most common and easiest tense to use. Past tense is also active voice. “Visions of bylines danced in our heads while we composed in past tense.”

Author and college professor David Pierce said, “When writing personal experience pieces, my students will start off okay in past tense. Then when they get to the action scene, there’s a strong tendency to shift to present tense because that is a hot and immediate tense. I even do that in my rough drafts at times – and mark it with my own red pen!”

Writing with inconsistent tenses is common during the early stages of a project. Once a writer is aware of the importance of employing a consistent tense, the cure for mixed tenses is delightfully simple.

“Practice is the best of all instructors,” said Publilius Syrus. The codicil is practice makes permanent. Author Jerry Jenkins is a stickler for using correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, and tense in all of his communications. This includes email, and texting.

As a writer, your communications are your reputation. Your resume. Editors are not likely to use a writer whose Facebook, blogs, website posts, emails, queries and proposals are misspelled, use poor grammar, and are written in mixed tense.

Polishing a manuscript into a single tense is part of the editing process. “If a writer works on a project in chunks, do whatever tenses come for that time. It’s a first draft – get it all out and down on paper,” advised Squires. “Then read through the manuscript carefully and critically and polish before sending it to a mentor, editor, or writers group. Read it out loud. Your ear will catch a lot of what your eyes miss. Be professional and only submit your cleanest manuscripts.”

Cast your writing in the tense that best suits the piece you are writing. Whether past, present, or future, the tense contributes to the feel and mood of the manuscript. The key is to stay consistent.


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of twenty-eight books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, and Chasing Sunrise. Optimistic dream-driver, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing, and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and Twitter @PeggySueWells. 


  1. Great article, Peggie!
    When I had a professional critique of the first ten pages of my manuscript, this was one of the main mistakes she pointed out.
    Thanks for bringing attention to this common aspiring author problem.

  2. Thanks for this article Ms. Peggy. I have a dear writing friend who is forever identifying where I switch tenses, sometimes in mid-paragraph. We all have some lazy habits in our writing. Great tips to help self-identify one of mine. Will save this for future reference. God's blessings ma'am.

  3. Great advice. As an editor, tenses make me tense as well. :)