Writing in the present tense

writing, copywriting, freelance, just workingDuring a recent English lesson, my student read from a Time Out article written in the present tense. This confused him: as a learner of English as a second language he was taught that the present tense is used for general or repeated actions, or states. Why would anyone write a report in the present tense, as the events had already happened? I explained that writing in the present tense is a common device in journalism, especially with interviews (as this was), to bring about a sense of immediacy and familiarity. As a literary device, this isn’t easy (or generally necessary) to teach, but in the present tense is more useful than just labelling habits and states. Here’s a short list of potential uses of writing in the present tense in copywriting:

Writing instructions

The most fundamental use of the simple present tense in writing is for a list of instructions or orders. Why? Because it is simple and clear, saving time, and when the instructions are actually used they will be followed in the moment. Break the glass, pull the bell, now run for the fire door. This could also include assembly instructions, an area you might not ordinarily consider for copy. If a product’s instructions are clear and simple (especially if the product is not), then people are likely to find it easier to use and ultimately be warmer to it. Writing instructions may seem like a basic skill, but making a complex task seem seamless is a delicate art.

Place the reader in the moment

A common use of writing in the present tense in advertising is to place the reader in a certain place or state, usually through second-person perspective. This can get your reader to personalise the conjured moment and really relate to it. If you can put the reader in a happy place, you can put a product there too, creating a bond. It is a powerful tool as the present tense creates immediacy, as opposed to the future tense which is less attainable.

Nestled into the golden sand’s embrace, the lapping water slips between your toes as your skin tingles under the sun’s warmth. Lie here all day – you’re safe with AntiWet Sun Cream.

An alternative to placing the product in the moment is to replace the moment with the product, suggesting it produces the same feeling:

Nestled into the golden sand’s embrace, the lapping water slips between your toes as your skin tingles under the sun’s warmth. Forget the office with Everyday Spas.

I’ve gone with an extreme example to make a point, and in these cases the present tense is most useful for a luxury or wishful product. It could also easily relate to everyday life: Picture yourself comfortably lounging at home watching TV. Now picture the same with a Frothy Coffee in your hand.

Creating a sense of the informal

We sometimes use present tense narrative in everyday speech, often to create a sense of immediacy in comic or dramatic storytelling. This is a useful tone of voice to adopt if you want to depict an informal setting, so is mostly limited to certain advertising copy. You have to be careful to create the right image, however; it’s very easy for attempts at casual writing to seem crass or rude. 

The impression that writing in the present tense can make.

In report writing, in a business setting, the present sense is difficult to justify, except in plans and schedules.


Present tense for future plans

Using the present tense for a future meaning is simple, all it requires is an added time.

Present the figures. -> Present the figures on Thursday.

If you are writing a bid proposal or other plan, there are occasions when writing in the present tense is more useful to save time and space. Usually this is clearest in a spreadsheet or timeline format, with the time stated separately, so you can write in simple present tense. The choice to use the present tense in such a list puts the emphasis on an action being started or ongoing, making it most useful for speculative projects.

Day 1 – Item goes on sale.

Day 2 – Profits escalate.

If you want to put a greater emphasis on results, the past tense may look stronger.

Day 1 – Items sold.

Day 2 – Profits increased.

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