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My office-grey pencil skirt

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, people used to write in the past tense. In the galaxy we live in today, people increasingly write in the present tense.

I don’t know why. I used to write in the past tense. Now I use the present (albeit for a very specific character and for a very specific set of reasons.) You quite likely do the same.

And if you do – fine. There’s nothing wrong with the present tense and for that matter, there’s nothing wrong with the past tense. If you’re a Past-Master, then fine. You can safely print off this email and hurl it, flamboyantly, into a burning waste paper basket. You may want to add a ‘huh’ of disdain or perhaps twirl the tips of your luxuriant moustache. This email is not for you.

If you are a Present-Tenser, however – or (worse!) if you have no moustache to twirl – then then read on.

OK. So:

The thing about writing in the present tense, and especially first person in the present tense, is that it is the easiest way – the very simplest method ever devised – to write badly.

F’rinstance, take this passage, which I have just concocted for your joy and delight:

I enter the room. The door clangs shut behind me. Jared Coad is there, in shorts and a black T-shirt. Bare feet.

I smooth my skirt and smile awkwardly. I move to sit and as I do I can feel his gaze on me. I feel the way my office-grey pencil skirt outlines the shape of my bum and legs.

His gaze on me never wavers.

‘You came back,’ he says.

‘Yes, Jared.’

‘Interview time.’ He says that like it’s a joke, but if so, I don’t know if it’s a joke I get to share. ‘You didn’t bring your boyfriend with you this time.’

‘PC Price. He’s not my boyfriend as you perfectly well know.’

I try to keep my look and tone professional, but I feel my cheeks starting to burn. I reach for the tape-recorder and my hands shake a bit as I try to get the tape into the machine. It’s only a distraction anyway. I try to distract myself. I want to get back on track. I don’t want to lose this interview before it even starts.

I hope you realise this is not good prose. It’s not terrible, but if I were an agent or an acquisitions editor, this isn’t a book I would read any further. I already know the author isn’t one I trust. (And most agents would read on. I’m exceptionally picky.)

And the reason? The primary reason? It’s all those “I + verb” constructions, especially ones that start sentences. Here’s the passage again with those things bolded and (at the start of the sentence) in capitals as well:

I ENTER the room. The door clangs shut behind me. Jared Coad is there, in shorts and a black T-shirt. Bare feet.

I SMOOTH my skirt and smile awkwardly. I MOVE to sit and as I do, I can feel his gaze on me. I FEEL the way my office-grey pencil skirt outlines the shape of my bum and legs.

His gaze on me never wavers.

‘You came back,’ he says.

‘Yes, Jared.’

‘Interview time.’ He says that like it’s a joke, but if so, I don’t know if it’s a joke I get to share. ‘You didn’t bring your boyfriend with you this time.’

‘PC Price. He’s not my boyfriend as you perfectly well know.’

I TRY to keep my look and tone professional, but I feel my cheeks starting to burn. I REACH for the tape-recorder and my hands shake a bit as I try to get the tape into the machine. It’s only a distraction anyway. I TRY to distract myself. I WANT to get back on track. I DON’T WANT to lose this interview before it even starts.

That’s 15 uses of the construction in fewer than 200 words, and 9 sentences that start with it.

What’s more, some of those sentences are quite awkward.

There’s something quite blunt about the Simple Present in English (eg: “I try”). In ordinary speech, we often prefer the Present Continuous (“I am trying”) or the Present Perfect (“I have tried”). But because those forms don’t immediately leap to mind when we think ‘present tense’, we can easily end up grabbing for the most obvious tool in the box, even when it’s the wrong one.

The result is sentences like “I try to distract myself”, when “I am trying to distract myself” sounds more natural – more fluent.

You could say much the same about “I try to keep my look and tone professional.

That’s something she has tried to do since coming into the room, it’s something she is continuing to do, and something she will also do in the near future. And (cos this is English, the world’s most over-stuffed language), we have a tense for that – the present perfect. So that sentence would become: “I have tried to keep my look and tone professional …

Already better, right?

OK, now because you’re in the zone, may I suggest you take a look at this sentence and figure out why you hate, loathe and despise it:

I feel the way my office-grey pencil skirt outlines the shape of my bum and legs.

You hate it because the real subject of the sentence is the skirt, and you’ve just shoved a totally redundant “I feel” at the start of it. So we just rewrite the sentence restoring the proper subject, so:

My pencil-skirt outlines the shape of my bum and legs.

Better, right? Not just better, but shorter. We’ve said the exact same thing in fewer words.

I’ve gone super-specific in my niggles so far, and specific is good. It tells us we’re on the right lines.

But there’s also a broader sense in which I want to yell, “Loosen up! Relax!”

You can write first person, present tense in a very intimate, very interior way … but where the actual prose is much less me, me, me. For example, by having your narrator observe and relate telling external details, you can convey a lot about what’s happening inside.

Here’s yet another crack at that interview scene – except this time, it’s a real extract from my current work in progress. My narrator is Fiona Griffiths, and she’s about to interview an extremely dangerous psychiatric patient. I’ve put some comments in square brackets as we go.

Interview time.

Jared Coad.

Him again, me again. Except with just the two of us in his room, and no great apparatus of recording equipment, the space seems different. Bigger, certainly, but also more liquid. Brimming with possibilities that seem to lie round a corner, just out of sight.

[This in a way is about Fiona’s interior feelings, but it’s delivered without a single use of the word ‘I’.]

Coad is in shorts and a black T-shirt this time. Bare feet.

His legs and arms are medium-hairy, and have the inevitable sheen of recent sweat. The smell in the room has a roughly even balance of recent perspiration and shampoo.

‘You came back.’

‘Yes, Jared.’

I’m wearing a dark grey pencil skirt and an oversized jumper in a duck egg blue. His eyes rotate through my various different components. Memorising me, consuming me.

We’ve now had Fiona’s observation of Jared physically and his of her. It feels a lot more intimate and sexual than in the first version of this scene, but the word ‘I’ has scarcely featured.

My outfit is hardly provocative but, if I’m honest, it’s probably on the slightly sexier end of the not-very-sexy stuff I have with me here. Partly, it’s like a little gift I can bring. If Coad gets off on seeing my bum in a fitted skirt, then he’s welcome to the pleasure. But, as I enter his room, and turn slightly to adjust the cushions on my little bench before I sit, I realise I quite like his gaze. Quite like his admiration. I linger a half-second longer adjusting cushions than I really need to. Bend a little lower. Smooth my skirt as I sit.

‘You didn’t bring your boyfriend with you this time.’

‘PC Price. No, he’s not with me today.’

‘And you haven’t brought your tape recorder.’

‘No.’

‘Which means you aren’t about to arrest me.’

‘I’m not interviewing you under caution, no. And I’m not about to detain you either.’

Coad interrogates me a little further with his eyes. That troubled gaze. He has a habit of moving his lips, almost as though speaking or externalizing thoughts, but no sound comes out. The effect, however, is almost as though he is talking to an unseen colleague. And if he were doing that, he could only be talking about me.

That’s 330 words and the word “I” hardly features, except in the one paragraph where Fiona is intensely self-conscious of his gaze and her enjoyment of it. In that context, it doesn’t feel awkward, it feels part of the sexual tension in the room.

The main lesson here? Just loosen up. Write naturally. Be suspicious of too many “I + verb” constructions. Be doubly suspicious when they start a sentence or feel awkward or introduce bodily sensations. All those things are fine in the right amounts. Just … don’t overdo it.

That’s it from me. Now please find your pot of moustache wax and start twirling.

I understand that some of you ladies receiving this message may not (yet) have a luxuriant moustache of your own, in which case you can Toss Your Tresses In A Haughty Manner. That would do absolutely fine.

Till soon – twirl, twirl.

OK. What about you? Do you write present or past? Do you want to expose some of your present tense writing to my Ultra Pedantic Gaze? Or do you merely want to practise your Tress Tossing? In which case, get a load of this ...

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Comments (20)
  • I write in the past tense -I still haven't found something to write that I thought would be better in the present tense. Anyway, this post is very useful to me too. I find it's more on style issues than on tense. Even if it weren't, I'd be silly to discard it and miss a chance to learn more. Thanks, Harry.

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    • I was thinking the same. Tense isn't the issue here; psychic distance is. When you get inside a PoV character's head - whether in first person or third - their experience is very rarely (the except being those very self-conscious of externalised attention moments, as per Harry's example) focused on me-me-me. Their attention, their thinking, is about their environment, how the world swirls about them.

      Effectively, irrespective of tense, the audience gets closer to the character by experiencing through their senses, rather than wallowing in unrealistic direct "thought" of what they are doing.

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    • Very helpful, especially as present tense is becoming much more common.  It must be said though that short repetitive first person sentences  are not the sole prerogative of the present tense since I've managed to notch up 93 consecutive ones in the past tense before now (I exaggerate slightly)

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      • Love this post. I’m writing in first person present. And learned I is not always the subject of the sentence. You explained it beautifully. 

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        • I hadn't even finished your post before I ran to my WIP and saw all the I's sticking up like dandelions. I went through them with my metaphorical mower and the improvement in the psychic distance was noticeable. So thanks, Harry, this was really useful. (I wrote psychic distancing before I noticed and changed it - sign of the times.)

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          • Harry, your post came just at the right time. I'm writing a travel memoir in 1st person present tense and was already conscious of an excess of 'I's. Coincidentally, my current read is 'In Patagonia' by Bruce Chatwin. Although his book is a classic, has wonderful description and imagery, it is bespattered with I+verb. How did he get away with it?

            Oh well, I'll take the imagery lesson from him and the 'I' reduction lesson from you.

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