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What Tense Should I Use in Writing?

on August 3, 2015 by Proofreading Pal in Professional Writing facebook in twitter

When writing, people are often confused about what tense they should use. Should I write this MLA history paper in past tense? Should I write my short story in present or past tense? How about a resume: should I write my job entries in present or past? And these people are right to be confused because what tense you should use varies widely depending on your writing style and your purpose.

Academic (Four Main Styles)

APA/Harvard: Per APA (and its non-American variant, Harvard), you should primarily use past tense, especially in literature reviews where you’re talking about authors’ past studies. It should be:

“Johnson (2008) argued . . .”

not

“Johnson (2008) argues . . . .”

The same is true for your Results and Method sections, but APA makes an exception for Discussion sections (where you examine your conclusions and the implications of the study), which can be in present tense if it better conveys your meaning.

MLA: This style is a bit more straightforward. Per MLA, you should be almost always using present tense:

“In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch argues . . .”

If you need to differentiate time, you should use present perfect tense:

“For many years, Scout has been worrying about . . . .”

If you must, you can use some past tense, but keep it to a minimum.

Chicago: This style is a bit more lenient. Per Chicago, you can use either present or past (Though it’s best to use present when discussing literature and past when writing about history.), but make sure you stay consistent. If you switch, make sure you need to, such as:

The Romans used various military strategies, some of which are still in use today.

AP: AP, which is used by news media, is also more flexible. There is no set tense; instead, you should be endeavoring to use present/past/future as necessary to make sure the events you are describing are as clear as possible. AP also recommends using time words (today, tomorrow, March 17, etc.) to anchor your piece and further reduce ambiguity.

Resume

When talking about your job experience in resumes, the rule is simple: Use present tense for current positions:

Lead team in HVAC solutions

And use past tense for past positions:

Led team in HVAC solutions

Business Plan

Professors and potential investors have different views on what tense a business plan should be written in, but definitely you should be using either future or present tense. Some people argue that you should always write a business plan in future tense because you’re talking about your future plans.

But there’s another school of thought that recommends using present tense instead because this will allow your plan to stay current as you develop it and you develop your business. In other words, as you develop your business, you develop your plan, and it stays current with what you’re doing.

Fiction

There are no rules when writing stories and novels, you can (and people do) use just about any tense or viewpoint or perspective imaginable, but there are conventions that you may wish to follow, especially if you’re just starting out. Novels, especially “genre” novels, like science fiction, romance, and crime, generally are written in past tense. And for most beginning writers, it’s recommended that you start out doing so as well. Once you get some experience under your belt, you can then start experimenting. A lot of literary fiction is written in present tense these days. It just depends on what you’re comfortable with and what you think your audience wants.

Above all, fictional writing needs to be consistent in its tense. Just as above, don’t switch unless you must. (BTW, fictional writing is done in Chicago Style.)

Everything Else

For everything else, such as business letters, admission essays, and e-mails, and especially in more informal contexts, just use your best judgment and write in whatever tense feels right to you. Go with your instincts and remember that, unless you’re writing in a formal academic context, you have more leeway to do whatever you like.

Just remember, for all styles and purposes, always be consistent. Try to pick one tense and stick with it throughout your piece. If you have to switch tenses, make it very obvious why you are doing so, and at least try to start new paragraphs for new tenses.

That’s it, I hope you have/had/will have good luck in your writing!

Nick S.

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