My friend Don from the Gulf Coast Chapter RWA gave us wonderful notes on the use (or misuse) of “ing” words. It is so helpful I am putting the whole thing here.
WANT MORE POWER? GET RID OF MOST “-ING” WORDS
By Don McNair, McNairEdits. com
The average unpublished writer uses far too many “-ing” words, a fact that
drives editors and agents up the wall. Here are tips for changing that.
Consider this sentence, which represents one of the most frequent mistakes
writers make: “She started walking toward the door.”
We say, “She started walking.” Do we mean she got one foot into the air and
stopped? No, you say? Well, the author should have said this instead: “She
walked toward the door.”
The new sentence eliminates a word. One unit of fog. More importantly, it
strengthens the action. She didn’t just start something, she actually did
Think of the reader’s brain processing this information. The first verb she
reaches is “start.” Well, that doesn’t tell her anything. She knows
something is happening, but what? The next word, “walking,” isn’t a real
verb. The combination of the two words-started walking-presents a mish-mash
which causes our reader’s brain cells to trip for a nanosecond on her
reading venture (well, perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the idea).
Another example: “She began pacing the floor.”
“Began” is a replay of “started.” Change this to: “She paced the floor.”
What’s the big deal? Well, “started” and “began” are the action words in
those two sentences, but-again-they tell the reader nothing, do they?
“Walking” and “pacing” are not actually verbs. The combinations (started
walking, began pacing) become so much mind mush that the reader must plow
through on her search for meaning.
There are exceptions to this change-the-” -ing”-phrase general rule.
Starting an action is at times the important action, as in: “She started
walking, but changed her mind.” The planned action is terminated.
The point? When you see an “-ing” verb, get your blue pencil out and look
for reasons not to use it. Check the context.
“TO BE” -ING PHRASES
We’ve just discussed “-ing” words prefaced by “start” and “began.” Here we
consider those with a form of “to be” (is, was, etc.): “Patricia was
walking with her head down. It would be nice if Ralph called. He’d know what
to do about the train.”
We have no idea why she’s concerned about the train, but we do know the
first sentence should read: “Patricia walked with her head down.” Making
that change-replacing a weak-sister “-ing” phrase with a stronger action
verb-eliminates one fog unit as it adds power to the sentence.
Let’s consider another example: “Her insides were churning with mixed
emotions. Would Ralph believe her? Or would he dismiss her fears, as he
Change that first sentence to-you guessed it-“Her insides churned with mixed
emotions.” It’s shorter and stronger. More fog is lifted.
Always be leery of “-ing” verbs, but be sure you don’t change meanings.
What should you do with this sentence? “He was walking across the clearing
when they shot him.”
This poor man didn’t get across the clearing, so we shouldn’t say he did.
Obviously, every “was walking” shouldn’t be changed to “walked.” But work
of fledgling writers-and some pros!-abounds with “was walkings” which should
The sentence’s subject needn’t be a person, as you’ll see here: “The voice
was coming from his right.”
You guessed it. Edit this to read: “The voice came from his right.”
As you edit, suspect any sentence that features an “-ing” word following a
verb. They all deserve close inspection, and perhaps major surgery.
SENTENCES STARTING WITH AN “-ING” WORD
By now you’ve noticed we pick on “-ing” words which follow verbs. They
deserve it. They can suck out a sentence’s vitality. Other “-ing” words
that deserve your attention are those which start sentences, such as this
one: “Regretting her nasty tone, Betty said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.'”
The “-ing” word weakens the sentence. It trivializes the action. Change it
to: “Betty regretted her nasty tone. ‘Hey, I’m sorry.'”
That’s decisive. Betty does something. Here’s another example: “Pointing at
Gina across the campus, Ashley said, ‘Over there.'”
Note how much more powerful the sentence is when we change it to: “‘Over
there.’ Ashley pointed at Gina across the campus.”
We’ve dropped a word. More importantly, we’ve changed the action from
saying something to doing something. The purpose of “said” in that sentence
was to identify the speaker. Don’t we know it’s Ashley in the second
version without saying it? Leaving out the dialogue tag clears up even more
Another example: “Kicking the horse into a gallop, the girl raced up the
Change this to: “The girl kicked the horse into a gallop and raced up the
Let’s do one more: “Picking up a rock, she threw it at the dog.”
This sentence defies logic. How can the girl do both simultaneously, which
is implied? Mustn’t she pick the rock up before she throws it? Let’s say,
instead: “She picked up a rock and threw it at the dog.”
The following is even better, since we can assume she picked up that rock:
“She threw a rock at the dog.”
By the way: Don’t change every sentence starting with an “-ing” word. Leave
an occasional one to add variety to your writing.
Don McNair, McNairEdits. com