For writing diary content every day, which English tense is appropriate to use?

Things have all happened already. I usually write late at night (end of the day) or the next day.

Should I use simple past, present perfect simple, or another tense?

  • 4
    Wouldn't it be more natural to write the diary in your native language?
    – Armen Tsirunyan
    Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 22:12
  • Why don't you look at people's diaries on the web to see what they did?
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 22:31
  • 1
    A diary is almost always written from a personal perspective, so it is difficult states general rules for writing it, especially on the tense usage. In this form the question is not constructive.
    – Carlo_R.
    Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 22:45
  • @Armen-Tsirunyan practicing English writing.
    – gilzero
    Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 3:14
  • @Carlo_R - Agreed. Fortunately, Emily has answered the implied question - what effect will different tenses have - rather than the obvious one, "which should I do?" Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 6:10

8 Answers 8


Past tense is my instinct. Yet it depends on what you are writing and the writing's purpose. If it's an adventure story or something with more of a fast pace then clearly present tense might be best. "What was that? Rustling in the bushes nearby. Footsteps just beyond--sound like a person, a large person. I must move on. Now." That is more effective than: "Yesterday I discovered signs of a person having walked behind my trail during the night. I am being followed and better switch up my route." The Blair Witch Project versus an Aldo Leopold work.

  • 2
    This is an excellent answer; different tenses will produce different effects. Which one you use will be determined by which kind of effect you want to achieve in your audience - yourself, reading it later. Also note that writing in the present tense will make you relive events in a more immediate, you-are-there way. Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 6:09
  • Why is Emily's name greyed out and unclickable? Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 15:14
  • @Aerovistae - she posted the answer while the question was still on English.SE and might simply not have an account on Writers.SE yet. Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 13:18
  • I joined! Now it's clickable. Commented Aug 5, 2012 at 15:15

Use the simple past, if you're describing events of the day. An excerpt by Lewis Carroll:

July 4, 1862

I made an expedition up the river to Godstowe with the three Liddells, we had tea on the bank there, and did not reach Christ Church till half-past eight. (source)

  • 1
    That seems to be what I've seen most; even this diarist used past tense as well :^)
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 1:09
  • If you want your diary to be a recounting of past events, this makes sense. The past tense has the advantage of allowing you to say "this happened today, and I now think it meant thus-and-so" in a very simple, uncomplicated way. Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 6:13

I find these answers interesting because to me, a diary is a place you confess your innermost thoughts, while a journal is something you write in every day to talk about what you did. (note the jour- root, meaning "day")

That having been said, if I'm reporting on what I did today, or yesterday, I'd use past tense, because it's something I did. But if I'm using the writing as a way to work out my thoughts or emotions, I'd use present tense, because it's something I feel, which is still ongoing.

  • 1
    It is in order to bring out that very difference, and exploit it dramatically, that I allow myself changes in tense in my first person accounts, including of clearly past events. Tense-shifting is a way of playing with the temporal depth of field.
    – Nicole
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 10:45
  • 1
    And the root of diary is dies, Latin for “day”.
    – celtschk
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 13:53

It's a unique mix of past and present with future occasionally thrown in - while normal novels are almost universally written "from viewpoint after the end of the book" which means they will be completely "past", each journal entry describes very recent events - many of them ongoing or stretching into the future relative to the entry.

John left. We had a terrible argument and he said he's tired of dealing with my crap. Now I'm sitting on my bed and crying. I've been calling him for past hour, and now I'm trying again, and the phone still doesn't answer. I will keep trying until he replies or until I'm too tired to continue.


Are you planning on sharing this with anyone else or is it just for you? If it is just for you then write what comes naturally to you and what feels comfortable at the moment. It is after all your innermost feelings and your tense may change from entry to entry depending on your mood. Personally there is no way I would be able to write a diary entry if I had to force myself to stick to any type of rules.


It all depends on you. You can use the present tense to give an effect of continuation, for example: Wed June 8th- "The alarm clock rings. I wake up and groggily shake off the vestiges of sleep. My eyes slowly focus on the surroundings. ....." and so on. You can continue in the same tense for the next day to get that continuation effect. You can also switch to past tense in between to describe events such as "I decided to visit Anna today. She has been expecting me for a while now."


You can use past or present tense but it depends on the author's purpose. In a diary, if someone will read it, use present tense to make the reader feel like are in the same situation. Otherwise, if it's personal, there's no rules needed to follow. Good Luck:)


I found these responses very interesting and still relevant to this day, almost 8 years after the original posting. This is because I am finishing my own journal that I have started 22 years ago on the events that happened 23 year ago. It has been a puzzle to me what would be the best form to present it. Do I present as now in reflection or then as day-to-day entry or a hybrid of both? From what I have read, there is no fast or fixed rule in writing a journal, but rather the intent of the writer and the desired outcome of effect or impact from the writing. Hence, it makes sense to employ all the three tenses to fulfill these two goals. However, it is not so instinctively which tense is best unless you read and re-read the paragraph.

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