Why to avoid “ing” words in fiction

A few weeks ago, I had a blog-conversation with Jacqui Murray of Worddreams about editing out “ing” words. I’ve heard many times that these words should be avoided when writing fiction but never understood why. While some writing no-nos stab me in the eye every time I read them (such as filter words), “ing” words never really bothered me.

So, a little research later, here’s the scoop:

“Ing” words do three things:

They express ongoing action when combined with auxiliary (helping) verbs:
She was washing her hands.
The snow will be piling up all night.

They act as nouns:
Vacuuming kept the dog hair to a minimum.
Walking helps me stay healthy.

They act as adjectives:
The falling apple bonked her on the head.
A failing grade won’t get me into college.

Opportunity #1

Present, future, and past progressive verb combinations

When combined with little “helping” verbs such as am, are, is, was, were, been, have, has, had, “ing” words express ongoing action.

He is working every day.
He was painting on weekends.
He will be gardening after work.
He has been looking out the window since he came home.

Now, all of these sentences are grammatically correct, but they all have extra weak little unnecessary words.

Avoid weak helping verbs and write tighter.

For example:

He is working every day.
He works every day

He was painting on weekends.
He painted on weekends.

He will be gardening after work.
He will garden after work

He has been looking out the window since he came home.
He has looked out the window since he came home.

Caution: Sometimes the progressive action is necessary. Note the difference in meaning below:

He was shooting his gun when the sheriff killed him.
He shot his gun when the sheriff killed him.

Of course instead of “was shooting” you could try something like this:

He peppered the bar with bullets untilย the sheriff’s aim zeroed in and blasted a hole in his chest.

Which brings me to the next opportunity…

Opportunity #2

Replace weak “ing word” and helping-verb combinations with more powerful verbs.

While searching your manuscript for your “ing” words, look for opportunities to replace common “ing” words with more descriptive verbs in the simple past tense.

For example:

He was looking at the lawn for an hour.
He inspected the lawn for an hour.

She was turning over the burger with one hand and making a salad with the other.
She flipped the burger with one hand and tossed a salad with the other.

The ogre was giving the princess a long-winded explanation.
The ogre bored the princess with a long-winded explanation

Common “Ing” Mistake #1

Simultaneous versus sequential action

Did you know that participial phrases indicate simultaneous action? Not sequential action. This is a very common mistake, and another reason to look closely at those “ing” phrases!

Participial phrases aren’t actually verbs. They’re something called verbals, and they can act like adjectives. Verbals aren’t the action verbs of the sentence, instead they tell us something about the action. What the heck does that mean? Well, read on, and I’ll try to explain.

Here are some examples of incorrectly used participial phrases. Note that the structure implies that the actions are happening simultaneously, even though that would be impossible:

Peeling off his pajamas, he turned on the water and stepped into the shower.
Sprinting down to the lake, he dove in and swam to the other side.
The gymnast landed the dismount, dancing with her fists in the air.
The cat jumped to the window sill and curled into a ball, sleeping in the sunshine.

Yeah, those are wrong. I’m not kidding. Clearly, the actions need to be sequential, but that’s not what the sentences indicate.

Here are examples of those sentences with sequential action:

He peeled off his pajamas, turned on the water, and stepped into the shower.
He sprinted down to the lake, dove in, and swam to the other side.
The gymnast landed the dismount and danced with her fists in the air.
The cat jumped to the window sill, curled into a ball, and slept in the sunshine.

Can participial phrases be used to indicate simultaneous action? Sure. Here are some cases where it’s done correctly:

Peeling off his pajamas, he tangled his feet and fell on the bed.
Sprinting down to the lake, he waved to his sister and her friend.
The gymnast landed the dismount, her feet snapping to the mat.
The cat jumped to the windowsill, knocking over the vase.

Common “Ing” Mistake #2

Dangling participle phrases

We’ve all enjoyed reading these literary bloopers, and many of them can be tied back to those “ing”-phrases.

A dangling participle phrase functions as an adjective and unintentionally modifies the wrong noun (or a missing noun) in a sentence. They’re often found at the beginning of a sentence.

When the modifier or participle is not attached to the correct subject, it โ€œdangles.โ€

Incorrect: After finishing my homework, the teacher gave me an excellent grade.
Correct: After I finished my homework, the teacher gave me an excellent grade.
Correct: The teacher gave me an excellent grade after I finished my homework.

Here’s another one:

Incorrect: While snacking on trail mix, a rainbow brightened the horizon.
Correct: While we snacked on trail mix, a rainbow brightened the horizon.
Correct: A rainbow brightened the horizon while we snacked on trail mix.

I hope this was helpful. In summary, “ing words” are useful and they help us vary our sentences and paragraphs. But, they require vigilance!

 

186 thoughts on “Why to avoid “ing” words in fiction

  1. Wonderful.Thankyou for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jemnotic says:

    Thank you! I was actually running into this issue while working on backstory for my novel today.

    I just kept saying “he was ….ing”
    So not only do you lose the chance to find ideal wording by doing this, you end up sounding repetitive. It almost felt like my work started to drag on.

    So weird I saw this today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found it too! Just switching out the majority of those “he was …ing” will cut way down on your “was” words, which are terribly dull words. Your writing will look much more professional! Happy writing and be well. ๐Ÿ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kitty JK says:

    This article will be really helpful for my fiction writing. Thanks a ton!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! It’s just another thing to think about and keep in check as you write. Balance is the key. These words are useful but shouldn’t be over done. ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy Writing!

      Like

  4. Beck says:

    Thanks for writing this post. Iโ€™m just beginning to explore fiction writing and probably use way too many ing words. But of course you canโ€™t shave them out completely. Do you have a guideline for the โ€˜right balanceโ€™? Loaded question Iโ€™m sure and probably a skill that develops over time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, that right balance, Beck. Nope, I don’t have a guideline. There are so many elements that go into this craft – your style and voice as an author, the flow of the sentences, plain old grammar, and then all the other rules that you learn only to break. Some of it you just need to figure out through practice and feedback. And through reading books that you love. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. inese says:

    Your examples are most helpful, Diana. I always enjoy these posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Inese. I like sharing these as I learn them. ๐Ÿ™‚ And I learn best through examples, so it makes sense to me to use them as I try to explain. It seems that with writing, there is no end to the learning and most of the rules are very mushy. Lol. Have a wonderful day, my friend. โค

      Liked by 1 person

      • inese says:

        Thank you, Diana โค I felt so bad emotionally, then read this post and suddenly I have something to focus on. Isn't it magic? ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

        • So many people are feeling off, Inese, even if their own circumstances aren’t dire. It’s hard to stay balanced with all the uncertainty, and hard not absorb all the grief and suffering of others. Empathy makes us human, and that’s a good thing. We have to honor our feelings the good and bad in order to endure this. You are loved. โค

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for these great tips.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Tangie. There’s always so much to learn, isn’t there? Like with most writing rules, there is a need for balance, so little is set in stone. Have a wonderful week and Happy Writing!

      Like

  7. […] realized that without them my style of narrative voice is strengthened. My friend D. Wallace Peach wrote a good article on why gerunds are problematic in fiction if you want to lean […]

    Like

  8. iqraamer says:

    Very informative. I am glad I found this post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I still like “ing” words for the way they vary sentence structure and alter the flow of a read, but I use less of them now, and hopefully use them correctly. There’s always more to learn as we write. Thanks for the visit!

      Like

  9. Thanks for the education, Diana – I got a lot from this. Take care my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dawn D says:

    I’m starting to write my first novel!! So I’ll have to come back to all of these when I edit… the translation ๐Ÿ˜‰ But thank you XO

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that’s wonderful news, Dawn. How exciting. Yeah, don’t worry about these until editing time. And even then you don’t need to get rid of all of them. A nice balance is just fine. ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope you’re doing well and taking care of yourself. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dawn D says:

        I am trying as hard as I can under the current circumstances. Being confined is not easy, and my depression is not stable, so makes it even less so. But starting to write and knowing I can help my children with HW is a big plus for me. At least one thing that feels good. Hope you’re enjoying the Spring coming to your area. And though I know you live in an area where the virus has made landfall in the States, I also know you’re pretty isolated, so I hope it doesn’t reach you and you take care of yourself. โค

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you! Such a helpful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Learned so much today! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Sarah says:

    What an interesting post! Of course with English being my second language I’m glad if I can express my thoughts somewhat consistent and straight forward – no matter how many “ing” words I’m usING. ๐Ÿ˜‰๐Ÿ˜‚

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Jina Bazzar says:

    Those ‘ing’ words popped up a lot in my writing, no matter how much i tried fishing them out. These are great advice, Diana, and the examples help showcase the point.
    Thanks for sharing, and stay safe, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind them, Jina, as long as the grammar is correct – though I do edit out as many of those little helping verbs as possible. I still think that “ing” words can help vary our sentences and contribute to the rhythm of our writing. So keep an eye on them, but….
      Take care of yourself and your family during this strange time, my friend. Happy Writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jina Bazzar says:

        I don’t edit them all out – mostly the ones with “was -ing” and similar. But I cheated with this last book and used prowriting aid to find them. I did leave some when the context changed though.
        You take care too, Diana.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Grammar nerd here. Itโ€™s a common misconception that all โ€œ-ingโ€ words are gerunds, but a gerund is defined as a verbal that acts as a noun (eg: Walking is good exercise).

    Source: https://owl.purdue.edu/search.html?q=gerund

    Most of the time, the โ€œno gerunds ruleโ€ is used for the examples you cite, but itโ€™s a misnomer.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The examples of WHY a gerund is incorrect help a lot. Thanks for all of this good grammar work. xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • The terminology is gibberish to me, Pam, so examples are the way that I learn this stuff… and remember it. I’m going through my WIP now and cutting a few of them out. Varying sentence length and rhythm is an interesting puzzle without them. So much to learn! Thanks for reading, my friend. โค

      Liked by 1 person

      • Me too – I usually ignore those grammar long-winded rules and write how I learn from great writers. So, the examples are excellent. I just found an exercise for my creative writing students to “begin each sentence with a verb.” Now, I’m worried that they’d be encouraged to use too many gerunds for all time. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Thanks Diana.. so easy to slip into conversational habits when writing. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, and blogging is and should be conversational (according to my itty-bitty research). But I love it that we’re all wordsmiths, Sally, when it comes to finding the right balance in our prose. There’s so much to learn! Thanks for the visit, and Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Jan Sikes says:

    Thank you for the refresher, Diana!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Diana, you reminded me of the grammar lessons I had from the schooling under the British system. I enjoyed your post particularly liked the examples of “incorrect” and “correct.” Have a nice week and weekend coming up soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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