Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Weak Writing- Gerunds

There are all kinds of things to avoid in writing that weakens the power of your words. Many of them I've already posted about such as crutch words, filtering, passive writing, boring verbs. But there's another indicator of weak writing that isn't as well known--gerunds. 

So gerunds. What's that? The easy answer is -ing verbs used as some form of noun whether that be the subject, direct object, or objects of a predicate. Many writers lump all forms of -ing verbs together and try to avoid all of them. That can lead to some awkward or weird sentences. It's like saying never use adjectives or adverbs. Ridiculous. You can't writing a story without certain words. Just don't try.

What's more important is to be aware of your word choices and make sure they are used for a reason. There are some gerunds to be avoided. And others that are less harmful.

(Please note that I'm no English major. Grammar isn't my strong suit. I'll do my best to get the terms right. ) 

When gerunds come up in writing discussions, it's usually paired with to-be verbs. What we used to call helping verbs. Like so:

Suzie is flying to the post office.
James was sweating up a storm before his speech.
Helen and Jake are shopping for my present.

And it's usually considered weak writing because you're using extra words and the sentence feels less active written this way. That's easy to fix.

Suzie flew to the post office.
James' armpits poured with sweat as he waited to give his speech.
Helen and Jake drove off to shop for my present.

Another form of a gerund is when it's used as the subject of a sentence.

Reading is my favorite leisure activity.
Swimming is a low impact exercise.
Eavesdropping is a nasty habit.

My opinion is that these types of sentence in your writing are usual rare enough to be ignored and left as is. It's not likely that using -ing verbs as a subject will be overused in a story or that your pages will be full of this type of sentence. Try and avoid having too many of them and then don't worry about this form of gerund.

Next up is the another form of -ing--the participle phrase. These are often used in action sentences to create a flow of movement. When you have a lot of such action sentences in a row, participle phrases can be useful to give a different sentence structure from conjunctions alone. But beware of placing them at the beginning of your sentences. 


Santa's sleigh flew through the night sky, stars blurring with its passage.
Binki the elf grabbed for the safety rail, tumbling off the vehicle. 
Arms and legs churning, he plummeted through the air.

There are easy to rewrite to be more direct also. 

Santa's sleigh flew through the night ski, and stars blurred with its passage.
Binki the elf grabbed for the safety rail, but he tumbled off the vehicle.
His arms and legs churned as he plummeted through the air.

The trouble with getting rid of all participle phrases is that your sentences begin to get a cadence and all sound alike. Especially the longer the action continues. You simply have to mix things up and use some -ing phrases, if just for variance. 

So how do you get a good mix? That's where reading great writers in your genre comes in. After careful observation I've noticed that writers often use participle phrases in the middle of or end of their sentence. But rarely do strong authors use participle phrases at the beginning of their sentences. If you want to banish more -ing from your sentences, this is the one to eliminate. So a better mix might look more like this:

Santa's sleigh flew through the night ski, stars blurring with its passage.
Binki the elf grabbed for the safety rail, but he tumbled off the vehicle.

His arms and legs churned as he plummeted through the air.

To repeat myself, No More sentences like:

Dancing in time to the music, Rudolph clicked his hooves.
Jumping for joy, Sally tore into her presents.
Using the Bumble for a trampoline, Yukon Cornelius launched a kiss on Mrs. Claus.

They just don't flow.These types of sentences stick out. Pile too many together and they'll tire the reader. I suggested my Pitchwars mentees limit themselves to one sentence with this structure to a chapter, and I hinted that zero is the better choice. Whenever I see books with many of these participle phrases sentences I have to wonder about their copy editor.

Here's some other ways they could have been phrased: 

Rudolph danced in time to the music, clicking his heels. 
Rudolph danced in time to the music and clicked his heels.
Sally jumped for joy as she tore into her presents.
With the Bumble for a trampoline, Yukon Cornelius launched a kiss at Mrs. Claus. 
Yukon Cornelius launched a kiss at Mrs Claus from his Bumble trampoline. 
Yukon Cornelius bounced off his Bumble trampoline and launched a kiss at Mrs. Claus.  

That's my take on gerunds and I hope you found something useful in my rambling.    

   

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