for a strong, fast pick-me-up
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…
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
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!
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.
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:
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.