Posts Tagged ‘tense’

Common Writing Mistakes: Tenses and Passive Voice

Hi, squiders! Today we’re going to talk about tenses and passive voice, since they tend to be related, and because this is a good segue from our grammatical issues into our storytelling issues.

Tense in this case refers to the form of verbs used in the prose. In English we have three major tenses: present, past, and future. In most cases, you be writing in either present or past tense.

Present tense: I type this while I wonder where I put my tea.
Past tense: I typed this while I wondered where I put my tea.

NOTE: Just because you have a main tense for your writing doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally use other tenses WHEN APPROPRIATE such as in dialogue or in complex sentence structures.

Voice in this case refers to the voice of the verb. In English, verbs can be active or passive.

Active voice: I type this.
Passive voice: This is being typed by me.

The difference between active and passive voice is in the subject. Is the subject doing something (active) or having something done to them (passive)?

Problems with Tense

By far the biggest mistake made with tense is tense consistency, i.e. staying in the tense you’ve chosen for your writing. Have you ever started writing something in past tense only to find that somewhere along the line you accidentally switched into present? This can happen for a number of reasons: you were writing in a non-preferred tense and your brain switched over to your normal one automatically, you started a new day of writing without remembering where you were or what you were doing, you switched tenses for a particular reason–such as a flashback–and forgot to switch back, etc.

The good news is this is pretty easy to catch when you read back through your work. Tense switches stand out. They’re a bit harder to fix, however, because you need to go back through and correct verb forms throughout, and also make sure the sentence still makes sense grammatically.

If you find you’re often switching tenses without noticing, it may help to put a note somewhere obvious–such as a sticky note on your monitor or even a note in the header of your document–about what verb tense you’re using. (It can be as simple as “Past tense.”) This can also be helpful for remembering point of view, which we’ll discuss next week.

Problems with Passive Voice

Passive voice is okay in small doses–and, indeed, in some cases, it’s preferable to use passive voice. When you want to emphasize something, if you don’t know who is doing a specific action, when the person doing the action doesn’t matter, if you’re stating a general truth, etc.

In general, however, using passive voice creates clunky, unclear sentences that can drag down your pacing and the flow of your writing.


This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.

The sword was swung by the hero toward the villain. Dodging, the villain’s spell was released.

Passive voice can often by identified by some form of “is”: is, are, was, were, has been, etc. And if you take a closer look at the sentence, the “active” party (whatever or whoever is doing something) has been pushed into the object portion of the sentence while the object has become the subject.

(Back in the day, Word used to have a feature that would tell you what percentage of your sentences were passive. We’re talking ages ago. I was a teenager and didn’t quite know what a passive sentence was. They also had an Autosummarize feature which has also gone by the wayside, alas.)

Using a passive sentence here and there is fine. But routinely using them doesn’t work in most cases (excepting academic papers in some fields). Unfortunately, if you find that you’re using a lot of passive voice, you’re probably going to have to train yourself out of it, or else face a lot of rewriting in your revision process.

Luckily, changing from passive to active voice is pretty easy, in most cases:

Passive: This post is being written by me. It is being written on a computer. It should be stopped soon so I can run an errand.
Active: I am writing this post. I am writing it on a computer. (Or even better: “I am writing this post on a computer.”) I’ll have to stop soon so I can run an errand.

Clear as mud, squiders? Questions about tense or passive voice, or other issues you’ve noticed with these subjects?

Point of View

Ah, point of view. So essential and yet, sometimes so hard. As a quick recap, point of view determines who is telling the story and how close the reader (or watcher, as movies/TV shows/etc. also have PoV) is to said character. Related is tense, such as present or past tense. So stories generally have a PoV (or multiple) and a tense, and these tend to be consistent throughout.

PoV is loosely divided up into third person (they, he, she), second person (you), or first person (I, me). Third is further divided up into close/limited third or omniscient third, depending on whether the story still stays close to a single character or is more like someone is observing the whole thing from on high.

(Omniscient third is very hard to do correctly, because if you get too close to a character, and then get too close to a different character in a short period of time, it’s extremely jarring to the reader.)

Now, me, I typically write limited third past tense. It’s what I like to read, and it makes the most sense in my brain. I do occasionally write first person, or present tense, if a project works better that way (short stories, anyway), but for all intents and purposes I write limited third, and limited third is my default.

So you can imagine my surprise when I had a writing session last week on the high fantasy story I’ve been working on, and my brain desperately wanted everything to be in present tense. 35K into the book. And it was, for some reason, really hard to not write in present tense. (I read back through the next day and found a few instances where apparently my brain won.)

It was, even more strangely, just one of my PoV characters that wanted to be in present tense.

(Aside from your type of PoV, you can also have multiple PoVs–not at the same time. I’m reading a book right now with two, one of whom is in third person and one of whom is in first person. I read a book once that had a ton of PoVs–eight, maybe?–and they were all limited third past, except for two of them, who were first person present. But normally all your PoVs are the same PoV type. I typically have two or three viewpoint characters per book.)

Let’s review.

  • Point of view determines whose eyes we’re seeing the world through, and how intimate we are with that character
  • Tense determines what time frame things are happening in (past, present, future)
  • You can typically only have one viewpoint at a time
  • You can have multiple viewpoints in the same story, and they don’t necessarily have to be the same
  • My brain is a strange and unfathomable place

What’s your PoV/tense of choice, Squiders (for reading or writing)? Any stories you can think of off the top of your head that do really lovely things with PoV (or tense)?