Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #6

From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)

The fifth of a ten-part series.

#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present

You and I are sitting at a bar, having a beer, and I tell you about an incident that occurred last week, while driving home from work: At a stop light, in the car next to me, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in ten years. Then, pointing out a little irony, I add that just yesterday I had thought of him and wondered what he’s up to these days.

You frown and say, yesterday? I’m confused. I don’t see the irony if you saw him a week ago. Don’t you mean you thought about him the day before you saw him at the stoplight? I do see the irony in that.

past-present-future-tense

And I look at you as if you’re a dunce. Of course that’s what I meant.

Sounds silly, yes? It would be silly except that I see this type of thing regularly in manuscripts that I edit. When you employ present-tense terms in past-tense narrative mode—now, today, yesterday, last night, tomorrow, ago—you can confuse and stop the reader.

inTensified

If you as the author/narrator write “yesterday,” to a reader that is the day preceding today; i.e., July 11, 2016, or the day before whatever the current date happens to be. It’s the reader’s yesterday. That’s all it can mean. Otherwise, the word is meaningless.

Clarity, not confusion.

Why? Because even though your story may be set in medieval Scotland, in essence, you as the author/narrator are seated beside the reader, telling a story of events that occurred hundreds of years ago, not “yesterday.”

How do you fix this? Use “a day earlier” or “the preceding day” or “the day before.” This concept applies to the other present-tense words as well.

Examples, narrative mode:

  • incorrect: Today she felt she had more to think about than ever before.
  • correct: That day she felt she had more to think about than ever before.
  • correct: For the first time she felt she had more to think about than ever before.
  • incorrect: Sometime tonight he would be in a bed with a woman.
  • correct: Sometime that night he would be in a bed with a woman.
  • incorrect: Margaret wondered if it had anything to do with the messenger who had arrived at the house yesterday.
  • correct: Margaret wondered if it had anything to do with the messenger who had arrived at the house the day before.
  • incorrect: Tomorrow they would begin the climb into the mountains.
  • correct: The next day they would begin the climb into the mountains.

Caveat: This applies to narrative mode, not to a character speaking or a character’s internal thought. When a character speaks and says “yesterday,” that is his or her yesterday, not the reader’s. So, in that context it is appropriate to use.

  • correct: Shack looked at his partner and said, “Tomorrow we will begin the climb into the mountains.”

A past-tense narrator can’t use the word
“yesterday” unless he’s using it in dialogue.

—Sally Apokedak

Now
Beware of the use of “now”—save it for the few (if any) times it’s needed for clarity.

“Now” is a present-tense word, but I see it used in a past-tense context—“now” means the present, at this moment—not the past, in which case you would say “then” or “at that moment” or “at that point” or “at that time.” (But please do not say “at that point in time.”)

Yeah, I know now has a long history, mostly notably among historians. Do you rely on historians for history or grammar? Also, by deleting it, it’s one more way you can tighten up your writing and polish your prose—and not annoy your readers with extraneous clutter.

Don’t believe me? Check it out. See the “better” examples below. Then do a search of your manuscript for “now” and in every instance remove it to see if it makes any difference. In most cases, it won’t. Dialogue may be excepted.

  • incorrect: Blood now dripped off his chin onto the blanket.
  • correct: Blood then dripped off his chin onto the blanket.
  • correct: At that moment, blood dripped off his chin onto the blanket.
  • better (keep it simple): Blood dripped off his chin onto the blanket.
  • incorrect: Now he figured the six miles to the trailhead would take another two hours.
  • correct: Then he figured the six miles to the trailhead would take another two hours.
  • correct: At the time he figured the six miles to the trailhead would take another two hours.
  • better (keep it simple): He figured the six miles to the trailhead would take another two hours.

References & Resources:

Rewind:

Introduction
#10 They’re, Their Now: Contractions & Homophonic Convergence
#9. Commagain? Oxford Comma, Comma Splice & Dialogue Punchuating Bag
#8. Word Contortion: Homophonic Trip-ups
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room

Still to come:

#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash
#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash
#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, Contusion
#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Extra: My Language Pet Peeves

Advertisements

About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- www.larryedwards.com -- www.dareicallitmurder.com -- www.wigeonpublishing.com
This entry was posted in Editing, Publishing, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #6

  1. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #5 | Polishing Your Prose

  2. Pingback: From the Editor’s Eye: The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers | Polishing Your Prose

  3. Reblogged this on Sandra Yeaman and commented:
    A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present, another common error from writers, from SDW/EG member Larry Edwards.

  4. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #6 | San Diego Writers/Editors Guild

  5. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #4 | Polishing Your Prose

  6. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #3 | Polishing Your Prose

  7. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #2 | Polishing Your Prose

  8. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #1 | Polishing Your Prose

  9. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #0 | Polishing Your Prose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s