How to Correctly Use the Present and Past Tense to Strengthen Your Writing

It's actually pretty simple once you know the "rules"

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How to Correctly Use the Present and Past Tense to Strengthen Your Writing

Confession time —I've always struggled with knowing what tense to use in my writing.

Most of the problem stems from unlearning all the stupid "rules" I was taught in school. Rules that "all great writers must follow" (even though they don't).

The rule that tripped me up the most was to never shift tenses in your writing. For example, if you start in the present, you better stay there, and you better make sure the entire rest of your article is in the present tense.

But here's the thing: great storytellers shift tenses all the time. Matthew Dicks, an author who's made a career out of storytelling, preaches this in his book Storyworthy.

After years of racking my brain over which tense was the "right" one to use, Dicks cleared things up for me.

  1. It's perfectly OK to shift tenses throughout your writing.

  2. Use the present tense to submerse your audience in a scene with you.

  3. Your writing cannot have two instances of the present. Once you establish when your present tense takes place, stick with it.

  4. Put your most powerful moments in the present. The present tense elicits strong emotions from your readers.

  5. Use the past tense to provide backstory (kind of obvious if you think about it).

Once I learned how this worked, I started seeing writers shifting tenses all the time. It's not super noticeable when listening to a story, but if you look at it in writing, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

I'll be practicing this big time in my writing. The goal is often and effortlessly.