16 Jun

tense intentions

Have you ever stopped and really thought about how you use tense in your writing?

I made a deliberate decision to just write my PhD findings however they came out. The complexity of the thinking and constructing theoretical categories and theorising was enough on its own, without having to worry about whether Melanie (pseudonym) did something or does something or whether she told me about something she does or told me about something she did. 

Added bonus on the complexity front: I still have some kind of relationship with most of my participants, and during the data collection phase I was privy to so much of their narratives that it’s really hard for me to think about them in past tense, but present tense doesn’t work when you’re talking about something specific that happened in the past. 

So I decided I’d just write. I’m a decent writer and I thought it might iron itself out as I wrote. Not so.

I’ve been having a conversation with my editor about how to handle tense and it has been surprisingly challenging to work this out.

Tense is some crazy shit.

Unsurprisingly, the Thesis Whisperer has some excellent advice on tense in literature reviews and I’ve read some other useful stuff too. (Credit to my editor for recommending these reads.)

The upshot of my reading and thinking about this is that I have to mix tenses. 

If I’m referring to something that happened during an interview or observation, I’m using past tense, cause it happened. It’s not ongoing.

Example: Melanie wrote a blog post about her experience of returning to work.

Example: In her first interview, Melanie talked about deciding out how much to disclose about the child.

When I talk about generalities, whether specific to individuals or relevant to all participants, then I’m using present tense. 

Example: Melanie ‘likes’ Facebook pages as a form of bookmarking.

Example: Participants ‘like’ Facebook pages for a number of reasons.

And finally, when it comes to theorising – which is about abstraction – and making theoretical statements about the phenomenon, I’m using present tense.

Example: Information experience in social media is immersive.

In my head, I know I’ve got to mix tenses this way. But I also find it really challenging to make blanket decisions about tense across 55,000 ish words of findings.

I don’t actually know why I decided to write on this topic. It’s probably not interesting at all. But it actually really helped me to get this straight in my head. #blogjune brings a win once again.

#blogjune 16/30

Ps. Apologies for typos. I wrote this on my phone in bed. 🙂

3 thoughts on “tense intentions

  1. This is very interesting and useful too. Tense is something that I find difficult – I was asking myself these exact questions for a recent post reviewing a book. I’ve also seen this issue come up when writing collaboratively as people do unconsciously apply rules in ways that may not may not match their co-authors’ approaches, which can make it hard to get a consistent feel across different sections.

  2. I find/found tense difficult. My biggest challenge was writing in active rather than passive (It still is often). And different disciplines have different preferences for all of these things I think too which make it tricky.

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