Friday, May 12, 2006

The "Ing Disease"

Miss Snark recently fielded a question that I quite enjoyed.

Several members of my writing group have been debating the merits of gerunds.

Examples include the following

"You startled me," he said, regaining his balance.

Erin admired the curve of his jeans, taking in the worn fabric.

Pausing at the intersection, Ned realized he was lost.

Some are under the impression that this is an acceptable way to describe something. Others think that is a weak method.

What is your opinion? Or Killer Yap's?

The answer was the basic recommendation to write well. At least she doesn't cringe and toss the manuscript in the rubish pile immediately.

More interesting to me, however, were several of the comments. I have my favorites narrowed to the following:

This one from Janny

As a writer who wears an editorial hat regularly as well (brings to mind a pile of hats in the corner of my office, any one of which I select depending on the manuscript and my mood), I find one of the few things that never fails to set the editorial bicuspids on edge is the seemingly constant misuse of the "ing" phrase. Such as:

Rising over the valley, she was in awe of the mountains.


Struggling for breath, her heart broke.

Now when I see a character rising over a valley, of course, I amend my red pen marks. Ditto for when I actually see a physical heart both breaking and struggling for breath at the same time (that is not a pretty picture). But I see so much of this--and so much of it ends up unintentionally comical--that I'm thinking very few English teachers teach the modifying-phrase idea anymore. And it becomes the curse of one who reads too much, as it stops me dead in the narrative every single time.

...which is not what you want to do for a reader.

Yes, I agree, good storytelling trumps all. But here's the "secret handshake": using the language properly is part of good storytelling. It's one of those oxymorons: if the language is used correctly, it's invisible. If it's visible in some way, the storytelling is weaker for that. Not irreparably weaker, and not fatally weaker in most cases...but just enough that I will take out my red pen and say, "Fix this."

Or it might the response to the one

Thank you Miss Snark for confirming that it boils down to the writing, not your technical expertise of it! I don't know a gerund from a mixed metaphor, and I've heard the term split infinitive, but, like, who cares? If a writing group is worried about the specific techniques as opposed to the writing, then they are focusing on the wrong aspects of the book. I suggest that they close their eyes, listen to it being read, and determine if it makes them want to know what happens next, or if it puts them to sleep. If the latter, it ain't the gerunds that makes the writing weak. It would be the writing.

which was this

Sorry, RB, but the writing group--if she be hale and hearty--*should* yap about the ing thing and any other hole in the boat they spot. That's their purpose--if a writing group actually has a purpose.

I do happen to know that the writing group in question is a critique group with goal of improving writing. The context of the discussion was if "ing" type descriptives were viewed as weak writing. My new opinion is that they are effective, if used properly. (Just like "ly" words.)

And I don't care what the correct term is. I got out of the diagramming business for a reason. :)

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