Writing Wednesday: a tense dilemma

7 November 2018, 0732 EST

Yesterday I avoided Twitter almost entirely. I went to bed early last, and am only now looking at the key results in the pre-dawn hours. But since it may have been a late night for most readers of the Duck, we’ll keep things short today.

I am heading off to the ISSS-IS conference at Purdue this weekend. If any readers are attending, feel free to contact me and maybe we can grab a coffee. You can Tweet at me (@lukemperez) either publicly, or privately (I will open direct messages on Thursday evening.).

In the meantime, I wanted to talk about writing in tenses. It turns out, writing about writing sometimes poses interesting challenges. Solvable, to be sure, but ones that do not normally arise during gradaute school.

I finished my book proposal (woot!), or rather, I finished a draft that I have sent to one of my dissertation committee members to read and comment. Hopefully I will have something to send out to publishers just before Christmas break. When working on some final revisions, I noticed something perplexing: I changed the tense of my prose in ways that were logical but inconsistent.

We all have consistent practices when writing documents that will go to print. In the written chapters or outlines for future chapters, the tense construction is consistent, following normal practices we all learn as undergraduates. But what made this document perplexing is that it is a piece of writing about my own writing past, present, and future.

My only experience with this genre of writing has been mostly informal such as emails to faculty or classmates about a project. Even in something formal such as the dissertation prospectus the tense constructions were neatly divided into what scholarship “says” and what my disseration “will investigate”.

The book proposal, by contrast, is partly written (the chapters from the dissertation) and partly unwritten (heavy revisions and/or new content). I did not realize at the time but in the proposal I switched my tense to coincide for the state of things as they are. This was additionally awkward to read because I have case studies from the Cold War, hence more past tense, and an epilogue that talks about foreign policy “today”. Taken together, that left for a very disjointed reading experience.

What to do? I emailed a mentor to ask how to handle it. Standard rules apply: events in the past, use past; ideas in the present. The only snag is when referencing my writing (complete and incomplete). There, he advised to use present consistently. There may be other areas to reference the state of completion, say, in a cover letter or over email or phone. But the document itself should speak about the project as a complete thing.