Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Writing 101: The Past Isn't Perfect

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Thought I'd kick off this year by starting a tab called Writing 101, where I'll share some tips on writing from my own experience over the past few years. 

Everybody's style is different, but there are some things that just make writing better. A good place to start is with my pick of writing manuals

In this post I'm going to dive in with something that's fairly advanced, but which makes quite a difference. 

It's the habit of pulling past perfect into past simple. 

Don't run screaming just yet. It sounds complicated, but most of us know what it means when we see it.

If your writing is littered with had, it might need revision.

Here's an example of writing stuck in past perfect:

It had been a hot day and he had gone into town to buy supplies. On the drive back, a woman had held out her hand by the side of the road for a lift, and he had stopped to pick her up. He had gone via the back roads because she had asked him to take her to her house in the woods.

The two problems with this are:

  • Repetition: Generally, you want to avoid too much repetition of the same verbs (doing words) and phrases in a single paragraph. He had once or twice isn't so bad, but past perfect is, by nature, highly repetitive of hads and had beens.
  • Dilution: The shorter a sentence, the more impact it tends to have. Past perfect is like adding water to whisky. Past simple cuts straight to the chase and helps your reader feel as though they're living the action as it happens.


See the difference:

It had been a hot day and he had gone into town to buy supplies. On the drive back, a woman had held out her hand by the side of the road for a lift, and he had stopped to pick her up. He had gone via the back roads because she had asked him to take her to her house in the woods. 
It was a hot day and he went into town to buy supplies. On the drive back, a woman held out her hand by the side of the road for a lift. He stopped to pick her up. He went via the back roads, because she had asked him to take her to her house in the woods.

Sometimes it's not possible, or even desirable, to remove every instance of past perfect. Sometimes it really is the most natural sounding way to explain something, but most of the time you can:


  1. Cut out had and have the sentence still make sense: A woman had held out her hand v. A woman held out her hand
  2. Replace with was: It had been a hot day v. It was a hot day
  3. Or switch the verb for something more succinct: he had gone v. he went, she had been thinking v. she thought


As with all good writing, the trick is making something read easily when it actually took quite a bit of effort to choose between a number of options.

The bad news is that switching from past perfect to simple will reduce your word count. The good news is, it'll engage readers by lending your prose a sense of immediacy, rather than reminding people that they're staring through a window into the past.

If you have a question, or any tips to add on past tense, please drop a comment below.

2 comments:

  1. No tips or questions, but I wanted to say, "thanks" for these great suggestions. :)

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  2. This is my bugaboo. I love past perfect in writing, but I know it's much simpler and punchier to make it simple past. It's one of my 'editing runs' to seek out words like has, had, had been, etc.

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