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Why tense matters and how it can improve your writing Part 3/4

Why does tense matter?

Writing is a present or future tense forces you to focus NOT on the PAST – but on what is happening NOW – the more recent events – or possible future events.

Journalists hate to use the past tense or the expressions yesterday or even last night at the start of a story. It’s OK to move to the past tense and past events AFTER you start with a more “urgent” tense.

Instead of Bill Smith has been chargED with…

or Yesterday Bill Smith was chargED with…


Bill Smith will face court OR faceS court on…

helping businesses avoid cross-cultural misunderstanding - feeling a bit crook (maybe it's Monday-itis!)
Have a brighter future by learning how to tweak your tense!

I often help lawyers improve their writing.

I’m a former lawyer turned journalist and business communication consultant – so I know the challenges lawyers face – and how to fix those challenges!

Many lawyers are notoriously detailed – they want to tell you everything – often in  excruciating chronological order.

Lawyer biographies often start with “old stuff”

I help lawyers freshen up the bios and other “copy”  by getting them to use a tense that ends in -S or -ING in their first sentence of their bio.

So instead of:

Bill Smith was admittED as a Solicitor in 1881 or Bill Smith has practicED law…


Bill Smith IS our expert in commercial litigation

Bill Smith leadS our team of commercial litigators

Bill Smith is regarded by his colleagues as the most experienced litigator

Bill Smith enjoyS a reputation as one of the best mediators in…

When Bill Smith takes on a client, the client can rest assured that…

Just to illustrate how reporters instinctively try to shun the past tense and use a more urgent and engaging tense – I’ll pluck some examples from TODAY’s news.

I’m re-reading that sentence – and I see how I instinctively use present and future tense.

These examples are all from The Sydney Morning Herald website. I’ve bolded the present tense verbs

Swisse sidesteps ban with relabelling

Rio adds Ivanhoe to auction block

Tax Office moves on alleged Mokbel associate

Woolies eyes global expansion

Treasury Wine puts Latin America to the test

Perth rentals jump to Sydney prices

Obama unveils surge in clean tech spending

O.K. here are some  more examples (some international ones)  from one of my favourite publicatons The Economist.

I hope the cover doesn’t get you too tense!

Korean Roulette

Note in this first example from Kenya:

1. the future angle – even if it is posed as a question.

2. And what he MUST do (in the future)

3. And the use of comeS to power –rather was electED

Will the new centre hold? Uhuru Kenyatta comes to power on a wave of cautious optimism. But he must tackle a host of national shortcomings if he is to make a success of his new job


Here’s another example from the financial section:

Note the tense – what’s happening now and tenses that end in –S and -ING

 Unions are in trouble. But some are learning new tricks—from the bosses

CAPITALISM is struggling but organised labour shows no sign of profiting from its mistakes. American union membership hit (past tense) a 96-year low last year

It’s OK to move to past tense – after you start with a more engaging present or future tense.

Journalists instinctively write in a more urgent tense in the active voice.

It has long been the case that the preference of the corporate world was that the passive voice was the preferred style  to facilitate  professional detachment.

See the difference? Hear the difference when you read it out loud.

Get Smart

In out final part 4/4 on tense you’ll learn the old “future tense as a question” trick!

You can link to the other parts of this Tense series here:

Part 2:

Part 1:

More tense examples in this background information about:

So who is writing this? (I’ve already written it – but I write in a present tense. Old reporter habit!)

Hi, I’m Tony Biancotti and I’m a lawyer turned journalist and  business communication consultant. (You’ll note that I don’t say I WAS a lawyer or used to be a lawyer – I AM a lawyer turned journalist…)

Sure, I’m a bit of a “nerd” when it comes to business communication – but I get (present tense ) lots of feedback that people like my enthusiastic knowledge of and passion for the power of words and images and  techniques of engaging people.

word nerd





2 comments on “Why tense matters and how it can improve your writing Part 3/4

  1. Pingback: How journalist instincts and writing skills are valued – even if not by the media! | efangelist

  2. efangelist
    June 18, 2015

    Reblogged this on efangelist.

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