Pro Tip Tuesday #19: Publication takes a long time and your readers are in the future

Because of the amount of time it takes to go from a first draft—or even a submitted manuscript—to a published scholarly article or book, the time frame in which you’re writing isn’t the same as the one in which your work ultimately appears in print, and readers might encounter it at any point between then and the total collapse of civilization. This is why I always recommend avoiding time references relative to the present in anything that’s going to go through the typically slow-moving process of academic publication. Terms like “recently,” “this year,” “new,” or “latest” are best replaced by references that situate what you’re talking about in a specific time.

I see this most often in lit review passages, which is unsurprising because authors want to show that they’re drawing on the latest work in their field. But by the time your book comes out, those sources you’re citing won’t be so new anymore. (Of course, you might not need as much lit review as you think, anyway.) For your future readers, a more confusing case might be a mention of a “recent” past event that will occur again in the future, especially if the meaning isn’t clear from context—-imagine someone making a throwaway reference to “the last US presidential election” in a book written in 2015, published in 2017, and read in 2021….