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You Live in the Present, Write That Way

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If you want your writing to impact, be present. Past tense weakens the narrative and deadens the emotional connection with readers.

Present tense is a weapon, which use raises body counts. Over at the BetaNews, some commenters consistently accuse me of being an overly-emotional writer. I cock my head and laugh, because just the opposite is true. Ambivalence is my feeling about 95 percent of stories, if not more. But accusations persist that I am a killer. For sure—of past tense.

Readers’ sense that I’m passionate about this or that directly derives from present tense. The writing is more authoritative and more advocacy in tone. Present tense feels differently. The reader connects more strongly to the words.

I watch for past-tense examples while writing my forthcoming book Be a Better Blogger. On Google+ today, there is unexpected, but welcome example in my feed. Brian Sullivan links to Montreal Gazette story “Canadian kids can navigate a tablet before they can tie their laces: report“.

Being a near-Canadian, clicking the link is pure muscle memory. The headline grabs my attention. Ah, but the story…

Lead paragraphs:

A global study of how young kids are using the Internet found Canadians were spending less time online and were less likely to have their own email address or social media account.

Still, more of the three- to five-year-old Canadian children involved in the study knew how to use a mouse and play computer games than ride a bike or write their name.

The survey of more than 6,000 mothers in 10 countries was conducted by security software company AVG Technologies, which researched how kids between the ages of three to five and six to nine were engaged with the Internet.

How I would write the lede, based on the original:

A global study of how young kids use the Internet finds Canadians spend less time online and are less likely to have their own email address or social media account.

Still, more of the three- to five-year-old Canadian children participating in the study know how to use a mouse and play computer games than ride a bike or write their name.

Security software company AVG surveyed 6,000 mothers in 10 countries, researching how kids between the ages of three to five and six to nine engage with the Internet.

This is a news story, and news is now, not then. Present tense impacts. Immediacy carries strong emotional connotations and subliminal associations. As editor, I might change “AVG surveyed” to “surveys” instead.

I call present tense a “weapon” because prolonged use affects readers. They relate more to you the writer, which helps build audience but also, in my experience, expands your base of critics—and comments let them speak. Loudly. Some of my most ardent followers are the most vocal critics. Present tense flusters them.

But audience by any name is the same. You want to build readership loyalty, interest. Critics, even the most obnoxious trolls, add to the storytelling. They engage other readers, if doing nothing more than piss them off. Remember: The story doesn’t end when you post. It begins. Commenters and social sharers extend the narrative.

Readers live in the present, so why don’t you?

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