Write Life Saturday: writing in different tenses

So my WIP at the moment is called The Daisy List. It’s getting very angsty at the moment, but I quite like it. It’s a second draft, and in past tense.

The first draft I wrote in present tense. Reading back the first draft I’m just like…


I do not understand this landscape.

And THEN, when I start on the second draft again, I accidentally switch tenses back to present. All the time.

Let’s look at some positives and negatives of both


Positives – more realistic, easier to suspend disbelief. It’s how we tell stories in real life, so this tense doesn’t jar the reader.

– more reflective. I mean, if it’s in the past, the narrator already knows what’s happened, and their reflections are often much deeper. It feels more profound or something.

– often easier to write. This is the tense most people start with, because it’s most common in books.

Negatives – can sometimes lead to telling rather than showing, and lead to recounting. This is a problem I have in my own WIP – the main character is telling her story, but sometimes it distances the reader from the actual story.

– lacks immediacy in some cases


Positives – the action is immediate. Everything happens in the moment. This leads to a closer distance between the narrator and audience.

– thoughts and feelings of narrator are easier to see. Most commonly, present tense is paired with first person. I can think of a few exceptions (All This Could End by Steph Bowe for example), but third person present tense is VERY hard to pull off. We’ll stick with first person present for now, which definitely helps with observing a character’s inner thoughts.

Negatives – may alienate readers. I know some people who are REALLY put off by present tense, something that isn’t often found with past tense.

– can be difficult to write well. I’ve tried present tense a few times, and sometimes it ends up sounding really awful. In my opinion at least, it’s a harder tense to write compared to past tense.

– harder to create a suspension of disbelief. I mean, technically it’s impossible to tell a story as it’s happening, so some inconsistencies might be apparent there.

The question: which one to choose?

(loving the tension in this gif)

Really, the choice of tense depends on what you’re writing. Something more reflective might need past tense, while something needing immediacy may use present tense. Really, your choice shouldn’t depend on what other people are writing. Play around with the tenses! Try out different things! Your first choice may not be the one that you end up with.

I know that past tense definitely works better with The Daisy List, because Daisy is coming back to her experiences from an older perspective. I like that about it. There is a lot of flexibility with both tenses, so whichever one you choose, make it work for you.

And happy writing!

Readers and writers, I want to hear from you both! What’s your favourite tense to read or write in? Writers, do you accidentally switch tenses like I do? Readers, are you turned off by a certain tense?



21 thoughts on “Write Life Saturday: writing in different tenses

  1. THAT JELLY GIF. Oh gosh. I full on laughed. *ahem* Well, you know I write obsessively in present. I tried to go back to past…buuut, I spent the whole book going, “How are you?” she said and walks to the fridge. It was a nightmare. Present tense FTW. I looooove present tense coupled with third person, too. It’s amazing. They did it in Unwind, too. I love Steph Bowe’s one.

    • Such a great gif 😛

      It’s definitely hard to go back to a tense you’re not used to. That example is gold 😛 and those appear when I switch, too. Steph Bowe’s one is a pretty uncommon one in that it actually WORKS. I haven’t read Boy Saves Girl yet so I’m curious to find out how she writes it. It’s just nice to experiment sometimes 😀

  2. I have to say that as a reader and a writer, I’m going to go with present tense. Yeah, like you said in the past tense cons, I feel pretty detached from the story sometimes when it’s past tense. Especially when it’s in third person as well. But definitely not all the time! I can probably think of some good ones but I’m kind of half asleep lol.

  3. When I’m reading, I rarely notice the tense (unless it’s done really poorly, that is.) I can be as immersed in a past tense novel as in a present tense novel, but present tense is usually deemed the more exciting out of the two. As for writing, I’ve tried both, but I think I’m more of a past tense person. Some people’s writing voices sound better in one tense or the other due to those inadvertent, mysterious nuances that no one fully understands, and I think past tense just suits me better.

    • It always helps to experiment with both, I’ve found 🙂 like you said, most people are more suited to one over the other. And some STORIES are suited to one over the other. I don’t have a preference when I’m reading, but I think I prefer past tense in writing, even though I’ve done both 🙂

  4. First person present tense is my favourite to read, and to write. I just think it feels so much more personal, and I like the fact that it feels like you’re experiencing everything with the character AS they are.
    Funnily enough, though, sometimes I’ll slip into past tense without even realising it, haha. It just happens when I get on a role, and don’t pay enough attention to how I’m writing – more on the what.
    To be honest, though, I love writing in all tenses. I’ve begun playing around with third person and I’m finding that I LOVE it. It’s so different to first person, but it can give a different kind of perspective to the story.
    Most of my longer stories are in first person present tense, though, because it is my favourite ^.^

    • That’s a good point, too – experiencing things with the character is often really great. Sometimes I slip into present tense – opposite to you, haha 🙂 to be honest I haven’t done much with third person. I guess contemporary YA needs a closeness that other genres don’t.

  5. Hmm… I tend to write in first person, past tense because first person is most natural for me and I despise present tense (I can think of a few exceptions, though, like Divergent). The description for The Daisy List sounds interesting. Great post!
    Also, I agree with Cait. Love the jelly GIF. 🙂

  6. Pingback: What Happened This Week: Embalming, Fangirling and Studying | The Loony Teen Writer

  7. I find myself writing in past tense most often ^.^ As you pointed out it just feels the most easy. I’ve tried to write in present but I tend to slip into past eventually. In reading though, I rarely notice the tense unless it’s something really strange. I think both tenses have their own positives and negative sides. You just gotta pick one and stick with it (: Then you’ll be fine haha.

    • That’s true about reading. I definitely noticed the tense in Steph Bowe’s All This Could End, but I think that’s only because not many people use it – plus it worked well. I like writing in past tense as well, I think. First person past. That seems like a good combination to me 😛

  8. I was actually thinking about this exact same thing the other day. I started reading this book and I was like: something’s wrong. What’s wrong here? I slowed down and realized IT’S IN PRESENT TENSE. Most books are in past tense, and I knew something about this book was different but I couldn’t put my finger on it. To make matters WORSE, my mind kept automatically making the story past tense. So my brain was very very confused. It was a weird experience. So, yeah, I prefer past tense. I don’t really have much else to say about that xD
    Other than this: I’ve also been wondering about POV because I totally expected this one book to be first person, but it was THIRD person. So if you’re looking for a topic to discuss, there ya go 😀

    • I’m quite used to present tense because it’s used in contemporary a lot, but I agree – it can definitely be off-putting if you haven’t experienced much of it. Your poor brain! That would have been weird (that sometimes happens to me when I’m writing).

      That’s a great point, too – first and third person (even second, although I’ve never read a book that did it well). Maybe I’ll end up writing about it 😛

      • I noticed that Insurgent is in present tense, too. Is Divergent? I need to go back and check. I never noticed until that book I mentioned. Jeez xD
        And second person! I haven’t read much of it, but it’s a POV I’m personally testing out. I think the few scenes I have are cool, but I doubt I can pull off much more than that xD

  9. For me, I definitely prefer past tense. Both reading and writing it.

    I’ve written two novels in present tense, and I’ve finally decided that it’s just not for me. There’s nothing wrong with the tense or anything — but it doesn’t come as naturally to me as past tense does. And while I DO prefer reading in past rather then present, I won’t completely ditch a book because it’s written in present. But if I had to choose my favourite tense, it would definitely be past.

    • I’ve written a couple as well – first drafts, that is. The second draft of Daisy List turned into past tense because it feels weird writing it. But maybe that’s because past is the status quo – I think there are positives and negatives to both. 🙂

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