Monday, November 24, 2008

Writing Tip #2: Smiling, We Wrote This…

Like Tip #1 last week, this bit of writing craft experience comes from teaching two back-to-back weekends of writing workshops. And in between all that, reading three ARCs (Advanced Review Copies or Advance Reader Copies, whichever floats your boat) for quotes. ARCs are often only slightly tidier than first draft manuscripts. So at times it’s heartening to see that other authors do the same stupid mistakes I do in their first drafts, and have the same brain farts.

That’s what crit partners (fresh eyes) and copy editors are eventually for.

But if you’re not yet published or if you’d like to earn the gratitude of your copy editor, you can use these tips to ferret out some of the clunkier parts of your prose.

My smiling blog deals with the (over)use of the gerund. The “ing” form of the verb. Smiling. Thinking. Reaching. Turning. Rising. Sitting…

Browne and King, in their excellent Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (yep, I’m mentioning the book again—I must think it’s good) files the overuse of the gerund under their chapter entitled “Sophistication.” As in—NOT. That is, overuse of the gerund form in commercial genre fiction (well, it would annoy the hell out of me in news copy too but you don’t usually see it there) is an alarm that the writer still suffers from amateurish constructs. So Browne and King say. I tend to agree because when I come across this particular problem, it grates on my ear like the ubiquitous fingernail and blackboard.

Noted SF author CJ Cherryh files the overuse of “ing” words into a different category: simultaneity errors.

We’ll tackle both here.

Good prose, like good music, has a tune, a cadence—a definite rise and fall, push and pull, lull and surge. Sentence length should vary. All long sentences in a piece are a boring as all short. Sentence beginnings should vary.

She walked into the room. She picked up a book. She opened the book. She read the page. She, she, she, she.


How beginning writers (and some published pros!) attempt to avoid this is through use of the gerund. Unfortunately, they simply end up committing a different error:

She walked into the room. Reaching, she picked up the book. Turning the page, she read it. Glancing over her shoulder, she looked back to the hallway. Sighing, the looked back at the book.

Okay, not that bad but close. I’ve seen pages where every paragraph on the page starting with the “ing” version of the verb…plus some additional gerund thrown in mid-paragraph.

Browne and King note: “[The] ing construction…[is] grammatically correct and express[es] the action clearly and unambiguously. But notice that [this] construction takes a bit of action and tucks it away into a dependent clause. This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. And so if you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Plain fact: it’s weak writing.

“The participle construction has a particularly amateurish flavor when placed at the beginning of the sentence.” (Browne and King, pg 157).

I couldn’t have said it better. (As an aside, yes, Renni Browne and Dave King do have the street creds as former senior editors for major NY publishing houses to make such statements with authority.)

Oh, they also point out rewriting the gerund participle phrase to us “as” is equally as problematic:

She walked into the room. As she reached for the book, she picked it up. As she turned the page, she read the words…

I just seem to see a lot less “as” phrases than I do “ing” phrases.

The other problem with the participle phrase is simultaneity.

From Cherryh’s Writerisms:

-ing. 'Shouldering his pack and setting forth, he crossed the river...' No, he didn't. Not unless his pack was in the river. Implies simultaneity. The participles are just like any other verbal form. They aren't a substitute legal everywhere, or a quick fix for a complex sequence of motions. Write them on the fly if you like, but once imbedded in text they're hard to search out when you want to get rid of their repetitive cadence, because -ing is part of so many fully constructed verbs {am going, etc.}

Logic errors like this are so easy to create and so easy to overlook. Your mind (at least, my mind) knows what it wrote. It knows what it wants to say. So when it reads the page, it often fills in logic that’s not there.

Trust me. I’ve done it.

Setting the cup on the table, she ran for the door.

Unless she had a really really long arm, no, she didn’t. She did not set and run at the same time.

Rubbing her nose, she turned toward the window.

Yes, she did. Those are legit simultaneous actions. Placing and running aren’t.

A quick check I use—if I’m not sure I’ve created a logic error—is to turn the two verbs around:

Running for the door, she set the cup on the table. Threw the cup, maybe, but not set.

Turning toward the window, she rubbed her nose.

Perfectly fine.

Take Cherryh’s example above and turn it around:

Crossing the river, he shouldered his pack…

Okay, sensible but that’s not likely what the writer meant to say. The writer wanted to show two actions. First, he put his pack over his shoulder. Second, he crossed the river. Crossing the river, he shouldered his pack…doesn’t say that.

But it’s just a minor difference in meaning, you wail!

Yes, it is. And that’s what being an author of a story is all about. The usage and meanings of words that clearly and definitively create the experience known as the story. The novel. If “good enough” is good enough for you, keep writing. But don’t set your sights at being a published author. Words as are much an author’s tools as spices are a chef’s. The wrong spice, too much of a spice, and the dish is unpalatable.

The same is true for writing.

Mark Twain said "The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between the lightning and the lightning bug."

Smiling happily, she ended the blog.



  1. Good stuff.

    I've found extremely helpful in self-editing, especially the articles on repetitive words. I notice I have a few 'Red Flag Words.' When I see these words in my writing, I know I've messed up somewhere and have to go back and ferret the problem out. It's still a learning process.

  2. Reading happily, I continued to learn.

  3. Thanks for the link, Kimber An.

    Good post, Linnea. I don't think I make simultaneity errors much, but I know when I look at my writing I often sense something unpolished that I can't quite put my finger on. I'll add -ing verbs as something to look out for (along with linking verbs).

  4. Interesting.

    "Setting the cup on the table, she ran for the door."

    That kind of sentence construct has always bothered me. Now I know why.

  5. Having set the cup on the table, she ran for the door.

  6. She tossed the cup in the general direction of the table as she streaked for the door.

    She flipped the cup at the hearth, and never heard the crash as her shoulder hit the door. The latch broke. She tumbled into the street, topless in knickers and heels. Wearing mostly mud, she made it to the space ship hatch just in time.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg