The saga continues…the theme of the day seems to be, “Point it out but don’t necessarily edit it to death.”
I’m not going to go into the fine art of selecting tenses much here; my goal is not to be a book on perfecting your style and grammar, but how to edit. However, I will go into a few points.
What tense to use.
Most works of fiction are going to be in past tense. He went; she dreamed; it flew; they discombobulated.
Now, in the normal course of speaking in past tense, some things are going to be in the past, relative to the main action of the story.
In dialogue, you should generally use past tense to indicate things that happened in the story’s past. “She went to the market,” he said.
In non-dialogue, you should start off using past perfect tense. She had gone to the market to buy groceries, but she’d been stopped on the street by the cops, who weren’t looking for her but thought she might know where he’d gone. However, this can be really repetitive, so after throwing a few “hads” in to show that the reader has moved further back in time, you can switch off to past tense.
Beware using any present or future tenses in non-dialogue, if the main body of the work is in past tense. It usually means you’re writing so intensely that you forgot your characters were a) in the past and b) not you. You might want to leave those tense shifts, if you feel they add to the story and won’t confuse your readers, but otherwise ax them.
This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t write a story in present or future tense. If you’re writing in present tense, then use the past tense for actions that happened in the past; if you’re writing in the future tense (which is hard to sustain without getting annoying but can be done), I would advise using past perfect to indicate past actions:
He will go to the rocket and open the door. Ten years ago, he had been too cowardly to stay on the same continent when the rocket took off. But tomorrow he will go.
In my opinion, use of the future tense is so weird to most people that if you slip into the past tense, people will assume that the past tense is the main tense of the story and the future tense is just hypothetical. I suggest using the past perfect to keep people from doing that. But do what works for you–just do it consistently.
Simpler verb tenses
In general, of all possible verb tenses, use the simplest available. Don’t use have/had (perfect) or was ____-ing (progressive) tenses unless you really need them, for example, to show that something that happened in a past tense story happened before the main action of the story (perfect tense) or that the characters were doing something when they were interrupted (progressive tense).
One, tenses are there to indicate meaning, and you shouldn’t use a specific tense if you don’t mean what that tense means.
Two, reading all those wases and hads and -ings gets repetitive and old.
A lot of people have trouble with using too many of the same verb, usually a weak* or overused verb:
You may want to keep a list of verbs that you overuse and add to it as new ones pop up. They probably will.
The most difficult of these words to eradicate or at least reduce my usage of, at least for my brain, is be.
I suggest the place to get rid of be and other weak verbs is in the content editing phase that your writer brain has to do before sending the work over to the editor brain. However, your writer brain may be completely blind to be verbs. Just writing this paragraph is giving me self-conscious fits, to be honest, but I’ll just plow ahead and edit this later, which is exactly what your writer brain may have to do with your work: send it over to the editor brain and hope for the best.
If so, have your editor brain scan for weak verbs (you may want to do a search for the various be tenses, because it’s hard to catch them; your brain may just elide over them). Highlight them, insert comments–whatever your system is for marking something for your writer brain to look at later. After you’re done, send the document back over to your writer brain and have it deal with the cases individually.
Your writer brain (or your writer, if you’re editing someone else’s work) will not like this, but having the editor brain pick verbs is a mistake. In fact, it may be better for your editor brain to do the highlighting, send it over to the writer brain, and then let both sides of your brain leave it alone. You may end up doing more damage to your work than it’s worth, getting rid of those weak verbs. But have the editor brain review for those verbs anyway–to make the writer brain self-conscious enough about it that you’ll use fewer of them on the next story.
You may have heard of the “rule” that you shouldn’t use a lot of adverbs in your writing. Using too many adverbs is a symptom of a different problem rather than a problem in itself: there’s nothing wrong with using adverbs. There’s just not enough right with them.
One, use of adverbs often coincides with use of weak verbs.
Two, use of adverbs gets repetitive. And the more repetitively you use anything in language, the less it means. If you’ve ever done the trick where you repeat a word until it becomes meaningless (e.g., saying “pizza” literally 500 times), you know the feeling. Too many adverbs are mentally numbing; the brain sees the -ly pattern so often that it numbs out. (There are non-ly adverbs; interestingly, people don’t have problems with them unless you start using that specific adverb too often [e.g., often].)
But, again, you may want to just point them out with your editor brain and hope your writer brain does better next time.
Another “rule” is that you shouldn’t use passive voice. He was given the big guns.
There are good reasons for that:
You’re using a lot of was/has constructions, which gets annoying.
You’re concealing information. Who gave him the big guns, eh? Your readers want to know.
However, sometimes you will use passive voice. You want to conceal information; your characters don’t know the information; your characters or narrator would naturally, habitually use the passive voice (e.g., anybody who’s ever worked for the government). Or you just want to break things up.
If you have a good reason for using passive voice, go for it.
If you don’t, weed it out: don’t use passive voice if it doesn’t mean anything. Words mean things; passive voice means something; if you’re a writer, you can break “rules” like this, if you mean it.
You will have the same concerns going on here as you do with editing verbs in general, so you may want to point out unnecessary instances of passive voice and then leave them alone, using your writer brain to write the next story with fewer instances rather than screwing around overmuch with your current story.
*A “weak verb” is also a technical term that indicates how a verb is conjugated; I mean here verbs that are so overused as to be relatively meaningless.