The nice thing about writing is that you can sit down and start telling a story without needing to know a lot of the writing lingo. As long as you do it well no one will care much if you don’t know the difference between past tense and present tense or first person viewpoint and third person viewpoint.
Having said that, I found myself annoyed this morning by a forum post that misused some of what I consider the basics. And it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this, either. (And, who knows, perhaps I’m the one who has the incorrect understanding…people in glass houses…)
Anyway. A few times now I’ve seen people confuse point of view with tense. So, the post I saw today said that they wanted to ask a question about different tenses, but then went on to describe an issue with whether or not to use first person viewpoint or third person viewpoint. Viewpoint, as far as I am aware, is not tense.
Point of view, as defined by Ursula K. Le Guin in Steering the Craft, is “the technical term for describing who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is.” (See Chapters 7 and 8 of the book for a nice discussion.)
Tenses, as defined in the glossary of that same book, are “the forms of a verb that indicate the times at which the action is supposed to be happening.” See her Appendix II for a detailed listing of the many varied verb forms using “to change” as the exemplar. (And see her Chapter 6 for a good discussion of the use of various tenses.)
Knowing these terms is not necessarily a prerequisite for good writing. No more than knowing how to read sheet music is a necessity for composing your own music. You could, in your own mind, call these anything you want to. (“That way of telling the story where it’s like everything is happening right now” could work. Why not?) But…
If you want to discuss writing with other people, then it pays to learn standard writing terminology. With the Internet and libraries there’s simply no excuse for not mastering the basics.
Not only is it valuable to know these terms when discussing writing with others, it also helps to know them when reading other writers’ works. It will help your ability to analyze and think about what you read. If you don’t know alliteration, synecdoche, onomatopoeia, etc., etc. then chances are you won’t recognize it as a technique when you read it. You may use it in your writing, but you probably won’t do so with intent.
As the advice goes, “before you break the rules, you should understand the rules.” And you’re not likely to understand the rules if you haven’t mastered the basic terminology. If writing is just something you do for kicks, then who cares? But if writing is something you want to do for a career or as a serious endeavour, then it will pay to learn the basics.
(PCW had a post on her blog at some point about how in her first novel she was a little bit of a head hopper, but I can’t find it now. However, in trying to do so, I ran across this excellent post on following the rules: Rules? What Rules? I don’t think I’ve linked to it before, but it’s a good one. Read it. And another one to read: Misunderstanding Grammar which has some discussion on verb tenses.)