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 until 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 “dangles.”

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!