What tense do I use when writing about literature?

When reading a piece of literature, the event is happening in present time, regardless of when the literature was created. This may seem unnatural since, as in the following examples, Milton wrote (performed this action) in the past. Literature, however, exists in the present tense because it is considered to be eternally in action. This is called the Literary Present. Past tense may be used when writing in reference to historical information about the literature. In special situations, both present and past tense may be used.

When writing about literature always use the present tense. This could include your opinion or the opinions of others in reference to the literature, or a description of fictional events in the literature.

    Ex.  In Paradise Lost Milton creates a luxurious Garden of Eden.

When writing about an historical event such as the creation of a piece of literature, giving background information leading into the literature, or information about the author, use the past tense.

    Ex.  Milton wrote during the 17th century.

At times both the past and the present tense may be needed when writing about literature.

    Ex.  Milton wrote his second edition of Paradise Lost in 1674, and it utilizes English heroic verse without rhyme.


Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1, Ninth Edition. New York, W. W. Norton & Company. 2012. p. 1945.

http://revelle.ucsd.edu/humanities/writing-info/literary-present.html. UC San Diego. "The Literary Present". Revelle College. Retrieved July, 2013.

http://www.iolani.honolulu.hi.us/Keables/KeablesGuide/PartFive/WritingaboutLiterature.htm#6. Iolani School. "Writing About Literature". The Keables Guide. Retrieved July, 2013.

http://www.hamilton.edu/writing/writing-resources/verb-tense. Brown, Zach, and Sharon Williams. "Verb Tense". Hamilton College Writing Center. Retrieved July, 2013.

http://writingcenter.waldenu.edu/539.htm. Walden University. "Verb Tense". Online Writing Center. May, 17, 2011.

http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/litpres.html. Dawson, Melanie, and Joe Essid. "Verbs: Past Tense? Present?". University of Richmond Writing Center. 2010.

Composition FAQ