Although we all experience the present in every second of every day, writing about it in present tense isn’t as easy as it sounds. Writing about what is happening at this very moment requires a shift in perspective for most writers. And, if you fail to maintain that present tense, the shift in perspective can be very disturbing to the reader.
Here’s an example of a present tense sentence:
“John walks into a restaurant just north of the International District.”
Most writers will naturally create a voice that focuses on past tense instead. That’s because the present tense feels almost awkward to read. Does this sentence feel more comfortable?
“John walked into a restaurant just north of the International district.”
There are other tenses that can be used as well, such as perfect, progressive, or a combination of the two called perfect progressive.
What Are the Types of Present Tense Writing?
There are four types of present tense writing that are available to authors. The option discussed above is called “simple present tense.” This is because it focuses on the verbs that are being used in the content.
Here are the other three types of present tense writing and how to recognize them.
- Present Progressive. This type of present tense writing requires the author to use a present participle: am, are, or is. So instead of “John walks,” this tense would say, “John is walking.”
- Present Perfect. This type of present tense utilizes a past participle to work with a present verb. It makes for a very unique form of writing because it feels like it is in past tense, but it is still in the present tense. Instead of “John walks,” this tense would say, “John has been walking.”
- Present Perfect Progressive. This form of the present tense is exactly the same as the “Present Perfect,” but it uses a present participle instead of a past participle. This means “John walks” turns into “John has been walking.”
What trips up authors is movement between the various sub-tenses that are within the overall present tense. If you use the simple present tense, then that is where your content must remain. It is difficult to jump between the various sub-tenses because it creates descriptive confusion. This rule, however, only applies to each sentence.
If you are enhancing the descriptive power of the present tense, you can jump between the sub-tenses on a regular basis. Here’s an example.
“John walks into a restaurant just north of the International District. Try the menu is important to him because his friend Jerry has been dining there for a number of years.”
Why Should the Present Tense Be Used?
Most books are written in the past tense. This is because it is much easier to offer the reader a narration, indicating that the story has already happened and now it is being retold. Screenplays, on the other hand, are often written in present tense because it gives the participants of the play or movie the directions that are needed to tell the story.
Yet short stories are often told in the present tense as well for one specific reason: it gives the reader an immediate opportunity to jump into the shoes of the characters.
Certain genres also benefit from the use of present tense. In a crime novel, the present tense allows the reader to walk in the shoes of a detective, discovering clues in real time with the character instead of having an omniscient view of the narrative. This allows for surprise, suspense, and a thrilling conclusion that may not be available otherwise.
What Are the Issues with Present Tense Writing?
The primary issue with present tense writing is that readers are often unfamiliar with it. The #1 complaint that authors of present tense writing receive is that their story feels like a movie instead of an actual book.
There is also the issue of belief suspension. In present tense, a reader must suspend their own reality when reading, but limit that suspension in order to believe that the events in the story are happening at the same time. This can be difficult for some readers to do.
In certain genres and for certain authors, the present tense makes sense. By knowing how to write in present tense with the proper participles and verbs, you can decide if your writing can benefit from this shift in perspective. It might be a move that is risky if you’re looking at publication, but the greatest rewards often come because writers were willing to take a risk.