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I'm editing a short story that's been written in the past tense, however at some points I slip up and use a lot of present tense to describe some scenes. Thing is, it's happened often enough that I've started to second-guess myself when I edit it into past tense, and I'm not sure if I'm doing things correctly.

Here is an example of what I mean; this is the original paragraph:

I think weakness is the wrong word for it. He's stronger than us because of his compassion. Standing up for and reaching out to someone in need is an applaudable quality. For him to still be his way at thirty-two years old, he's more of a man than the rest of us, that’s for sure.

Here is the same paragraph with consistent past tense:

I thought weakness was the wrong word for it. He was stronger than us because of his compassion. Standing up for and reaching out to someone in need was an applaudable quality. For him to still be his way at thirty-two years old, he was more of a man than the rest of us, that’s for sure.

The first feels more natural to me, so my question is, in general, is there a reason (in terms of getting published) to not mix past and present tense like that?

  • The headline of this question might lead people to think you're asking what to write, which would be off topic. I don't think you're doing that (you've added both "style" and "tenses" tags, which suggests we're thinking along similar lines), so the headline is a good candidate for an edit. Questions starting "How..." are usually a better fit for the site. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Jul 15 '18 at 8:58
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    Hi Natalie. Questions seeking advice on rephrasing existing text or critiquing an existing text are both off topic. Can you Edit to clarify how this question does not fall into those categories? Otherwise, it might end up being put on hold as off topic. Thanks, and enjoy your stay! – a CVn Jul 15 '18 at 9:32
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    Since the edit, I think this question is fine to leave open as it's a lot more useful in this format. – Craig Sefton Jul 15 '18 at 12:30
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Stories are not written all in one tense. Even sentences are not written all in one tense:

I think I will go to Paris tomorrow, the place where I was born.

The only thing that the concept of tense applies to is individual verbs.

One of the uses of the present tense is to express general qualities that have no particular point of reference in time:

John is wise and compassionate. He has been an excellent district attorney and will make a fine judge one day.

This usage is what the author of the passage you quote seems to be practicing.

In any case, this is not the sort of thing that an editor should be changing without asking the author the reasons for their choices first. If in doubt about any aspect of the text, always ask the author to avoid resentment and embarrassment.

  • +1 Unless something is obviously (and unintentionally) a mistake, or a single usage that really stands out from the surrounding text, it's better to query the author than to actually make a change. This is certainly true if it's an "overall issue," or one where something is open to interpretation. – Jason Bassford Jul 15 '18 at 18:36
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Using present tense for some parts of a story and not for others can be very effective - especially if the narrator is writing in a style that tells a story and adds asides reflecting the narrator's views as they tell it. For example :

John walked down the road and went into the newsagent's shop. He asked for a copy of the "Daily Mail" and made a face as Nasir, the newsagent, handed it to him. That's John all over. He hates the word "xenophobic", but mainly because it's Greek.

Since you haven't jumped immediately to the idea that something like this is going on it's either not, or it hasn't been done effectively.

If you have the chance to ask the author why they chose present tense for some parts and not others, this would be worth doing. Editing to correct an error in the tense is very different from editing to bring out a style.

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A narrator can mix up past and present tense without issues, especially if the narrator is telling a story now about events that happened in the past, but is giving their thoughts as to what they think now after the events have occurred. This way, you can disagree with actions taken by characters, or demonstrate certain actions were carried out based on wrong information etc. It's a very useful trick that can help the reader understand that characters have made the wrong assumptions.

Consider your two different versions: in the first, the narrator sounds like they're making a judgment in the present tense about an event that happened. In the second example, the narrator is revealing what they though at the time of the event itself (or they're revealing what someone else thought at the time).

There is no issue with either interpretation, but it only makes sense depending on which is correct in terms of your narrator's relationship to the story itself i.e. are they involved in the events, or are they telling a story that they know about, but weren't involved in.

The only way this would prevent getting published is if it becomes so muddled that it's never clear when the narrator made their judgment, or if you mix up when the judgment was made and subsequent actions e.g. in one part of the story you suggest the narrator is making a judgment in retrospect, but later in the story, the narrator or someone carries out an act in the past based on that judgment.

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The two versions of your paragraph are saying two distinctly different things, and neither is necessarily incorrect. Let's examine them more closely:

"I think weakness is the wrong word for it." You are describing an ongoing attitude you still hold (or possibly a new thought you didn't have at the time). "I thought weakness was the wrong word for it." You are describing a particular thought you had at a given time in the past, probably directly in response to someone saying something like "He's weak." (This phrasing also tends to imply you no longer think this.) "He's stronger than us..." This is someone you still have a relationship with, and he's still stronger than you. "He was stronger than us..." but now he's dead, or gone, or weak, or you and he aren't friends any more, or this is all something that firmly happened in the past. Depending on your intent, either sentence, both, or neither could legitimately be in either tense (yielding four different variations on the same theme).

I could go on, but hopefully you get the point. Even if your story is generally in the past tense, there are some things in it that could legitimately be phrased in the present tense, thus giving them a different meaning. It's quite common --universal, in fact --for past events to have an impact on the present. Language is flexible enough to reflect that relationship. What should be avoided is mixing tenses for no good reason, as in "I walked up the stairs. Now I'm pausing at the top. Then I went back down."

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    I would add, "I thought X" strongly implies the possibility the speaker no longer believes X, while "I think X" can be the opposite, it clearly means you think this now, but leaves the door open to not thinking that in the past. Depending on what you meant (or the author meant if you edit somebody else's work), changing the tense can change the implications of the author. – Amadeus Jul 16 '18 at 17:00
  • @Amadeus Good points, I edited some parentheticals into the answer to address them. – Chris Sunami Jul 16 '18 at 17:14

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