Writing about Writing


Which tense should be used when writing about published content, whether fiction or non-fiction? Should descriptions of characters, scenes, concepts, and themes be written in the present or past tense?

In reference to works of fiction, some may feel comfortable writing, Mark Twain’s character, Huck Finn, was a young boy who travelled the Mississippi River on a raft with a runaway slave named Jim. Others may prefer Mark Twain’s character, Huck Finn, is a young boy who travels the Mississippi River on a raft with a runaway slave named Jim. Both are correct. However, since works of fiction, especially classics, are considered enduring (that is, the characters, scenes, etc. survive), it is preferable to write about them in the present.

This is true of works of fiction that are centuries old, such as The Canterbury Tales, and novels and other fictional works that are on today’s bestseller lists. Therefore, when writing about, for example, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, it is preferable to write Inman climbs out of his hospital bed, and starts for home, rather than Inman climbed out his hospital bed and started for home.

There may be times when you are confronted with the question of how to write about an event in a book which occurred before the timeline of the scene that is being described. For example, in one section of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the narrator, Scout, remembers that her father “had served for years in the state legislature.” When writing about that scene, it would be correct to write in the present tense, except for the part which relates to the past event: At this point, Scout thinks about how her father had served in the state legislature for years.

Of course, when you quote dialogue or narration directly from a book, it must be exact. That includes the tense that the author used, which, in fiction, is generally past, as in the following from Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “And an airplane, and a TV set,” said Ralph sourly, “and a steam engine.”

When writing about non-fiction works, whether they are books, newspaper, magazine, or Internet articles, scholarly papers, etc., it is still appropriate to use the present tense. For example, when describing the building of the Panama Canal in David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, it is correct to write, McCullough describes the harshness of the Panama rainforest in great detail. On the other hand, when writing about a specific scene or event, since the book is a work of history, and, thus, describes real events which already occurred, the past tense would be correct: Many in Congress were against constructing a sea level canal through the Isthmus of Panama.