Tensely managing tenses


I noted a trend when I looked over past field trips. The first couple of write ups were a hotchpotch of past and present tense, not from deliberate choice but because I just didn’t take enough care.

Then I shifted into writing in past tense. Each night during my holiday in Victoria, I posted some highlights and photos for family and friends back home. These were written as if they were a letter home or a diary entry; “Today, we walked …”. Notes made along the way came in handy when I returned home and wrote up some reflections on the experience.

This pattern started to change with a visit to the Canberra balloon festival. The text I wrapped around the images was a mixture of past and present tense. The events were written in past tense. But in the middle there was personal reflection which was written in present tense.  I was writing after the event but this state of mind was still “present”. Writing it as such felt natural.

I deliberately started adding more present tense when writing up my field trips. Alas, the hotchpotch returned. I was aiming for something but didn’t know what. Trial and error ensued.

I think I now know

There is an immediacy to present tense. You are reading this Now; your present. If I write my experience as if it were happening now, I’m allowing you direct access. You can share the immediacy of the experience with me.

My first attempt at a fully present post was the trip to Gibraltar Falls.  However, I’ve just re-read it and there’s a problem. It feels current, as intended, but it does not have the authority of “Today, we walked …”  This lack of authority makes it seem lighter. It’s a story rather than a diary. It feels like fiction rather than reality.

Is there a middle ground?

The cinematic world sometimes uses a narrator who is obviously reflecting on past events. In a movie, each event happens while we are watching. Tricks are required to signify the relationship between events when they appear out of chronological order. One of those tricks is to use a narrator. This adds that air of authority, something has indeed happened, while reinforcing the idea that the movie is giving the viewer direct access to that experience.

Next steps

I have no clear solution to my problem but at least I have a general aim. I’ve just come back from a weekend away, returning with photos and ideas I’d like to share. When writing up this latest field trip, my aim will be to find a balance between the Then and Now. I suspect a little more trial and error but hopefully I’ll keep learning, keep improving.

2 thoughts on “Tensely managing tenses

  1. In ‘Getting the Words Right’ by Theodore A Rees Cheney …
    “… If however, the subordinate action took place before the main action, the subordinate verb must be in a past tense. Then, even though the two verbs are in different tenses, there is a unity of tense; i.e. they correctly express the sequence of happenings.”

    This is something I’m trying to get my head around in my writing.


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