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16
Nov 01
Fri

Writing

This is something I realised yesterday that I never got taught in English back at high school (or maybe they did but I wasn’t listening…). When working on my travelogue, I had the problem of continually switching between present and past tenses. In the end I decided to stick with retelling the events in the past tense. I didn’t really notice that there was any difference except consistency, until I was reading a couple diaries. These North Korea and Japan diaries are both written in the present tense. If you compare the resulting writing style to past tense diaries (which is the more utilised style, eg: this), the “feel” is different. Retelling everything in the present seems to create a more vivid atmosphere. There’s a sense of immediacy and clarity conveyed with it. For travelogues, the aim is to try to immerse your readers in foreign lands and cultures and get them to relate to your feelings and experiences. If you can “place” them in those situations, those locations you’ve visited, as if they were “physically following” you around, as if they were actually there, then the writing will be more effective. The present tense works towards accomplishing that. Compare these two:

The monk emerged from the temple, bowed to us and ushered us in. I took off my shoes and followed him in. The air in there smelt strongly of incense, mixed with the musty odour of the centuries old stonework.

The monk emerges from the temple. He bows, then ushers us in. I take off my shoes and follow him in. The air in here smells strongly of incense, mixed with the musty odour of the centuries old stonework.

And it could just be me, but I feel that diaries written in the present are generally more polished (better written and more interesting) than those in past. Too bad I chose the past tense for mine…

Responses:

Random bit of info re the past/present tense thing: a lot of ancient languages would legitimately switch to present tense in bits with lots of action to make them more vivid, in mid-sentence if necessary. (Like everything, we learnt more about this in Latin than English. Go the classics. :) F’rexample the Bible does it all the time, in both Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek, and it’s usually changed to a consistent tense…
Shish

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