The beauty of language is its function and its form. Language’s function is to communicate to others; language’s forms can be varied and many, but we editors chiefly concern ourselves with language in its written form.
Communicating ideas, analyses, and directions, or narrating stories, dreams, and jokes enhances the human experience. It allows you to connect with yourself and others. The process of turning thoughts into words challenges you to organize the chronology of what needs to be said, assign words to your feelings or thoughts, and then deliver them with the flair of language—metaphors, analogies, similes, puns. That’s a tall order of things to keep track of while abiding by the rules of grammar.
It’s easy to lose sight of verb tense consistency when crafting words for your thoughts. After all, they are your thoughts; you already know what you mean to say! The mental oscillation between recording your thoughts and creating written communication for others can create blind spots in your voice. Often, writers switch from verb tense to verb tense without introducing the shift in tone. An example of an author who lost sight of a consistent tense might look something like this:
I am standing on my couch—arms above my head—pretending like I am Superman. My sister came in, pushed me down, and I fall to the floor.
The shift is subtle; you’re with the narrator, feeling gallant and unstoppable until the force of sibling rivalry knocks you down into the past tense only to pick you up and leave you in the present—talk about disorienting. Here is the same scenario. This time, the narrator maintains the same tense throughout:
I am standing on my couch—arms above my head—pretending like I am Superman. My sister comes in, pushes me down, and I fall to the floor.
Being conscious of a consistent verb tense doesn’t mean that you can’t employ the various verb tenses the English language has to offer; you just have to use them properly. If you are going to switch your verb tense (e.g., include an aside about the past or contemplate a hypothetical situation), make sure that you take your reader with you. That means introducing the verb shift with a phrase that suggests that there is a shift from the current tense; for example:
I am standing on my couch—arms above my head—pretending like I am Superman. I hear the door open and think to myself, “If Jane were to come and push me, I would fall.”
The key to clear and effective writing is consistency. Be aware of the tense that dominates the writing. Then be conscious of any shifts, and introduce them to ensure clarity to your readers.