Tips My Editor Taught Me: Compound vs. Simple Past Tense

Email RSS


2019-05-28
Share this article on twitter Share this article on facebook

article image for Tips My Editor Taught Me: Compound vs. Simple Past Tense

More self-editing tips for writers learned at the feet of my own editors.

Today's tips will be about...

Compound vs. Simple Past Tense

If you're writing in the 3rd person, most likely your tendency will be to write as you were trained to write in school, e.g. dispassionately in the academic voice. That voice lends itself to the compound past tense, and I had no idea (until my editor told me) that using that voice makes it feel too remote in time. Compound past tense is one aspect of the passive voice that both readers and agents don't like to see (another thing I didn't know about until I started talking to editors and agents). They prefer active voice in the story telling. We'll cover passive vs. active voice in more detail in another post.

As in my prior editing tip posts, I'm going to post the actual text from my drafts (I may pull stuff from early drafts, or recent drafts, I am mixing them all together as I assemble these tips, so don't expect a progression of anything :P), along with the edits I received. Putting this out for people to see will just reinforce my own desire to never repeat the same mistake twice.

Example:

(Hover your mouse over the red text to see the notes, the notes will also be at the bottom of the page as footnotes for those of you on mobile)

Their task force had been1 escorting both civilian and UAA transports into the Sol system2. Those transports hadn't been3 deemed high value targets by Fleet Command. The ZPK apparently hadn't agreed4 with that assessment — they'd attacked5 as soon as Aila's task force had transitioned6 back into real-space in the Sol system. Some of the more damaged ships in their task force had already been7 ordered to escape the battle.

Revised Example:

I can't actually post the revised version of this, as this isn't in the story anymore (due to the wonderful advice I received from Karly Caserza, an agent with Fuse Literary whom I met at the San Francisco Writers Conference). So, instead of showing you the actual current/revised version, I will apply the edits so you can see the difference (these edits by themselves don't "fix" the passive voice issue, I'll show what I mean in the next blog post).

Their task force was escorting both civilian and UAA transports into the Sol system. Those transports weren't deemed high value targets by Fleet Command. The ZPK apparently didn't agree with that assessment — attacking as soon as Aila's task force transitioned back into real-space. Some of the more damaged ships in their task force were being ordered to escape the battle.


  1. compound past tense
  2. yes - go to simple past tense. 'He went' instead of 'he had gone' = more vivid
  3. compound past
  4. compound past
  5. compound past
  6. I'd switch to simple past tense. Compound past tense makes it feel too remote in time
  7. Can you hear the 'had...had...had?' It makes it sound like a history book more than sci-fi to my ear

Share this article on twitter Share this article on facebook

Recent Posts