Stop Using “-ing” Verbs in Your Novel

Want to add instantaneous strength to your novel?  Cut out verbs ending in “ing.”  These verbs weaken your writing and reduce the reader’s perception of immediacy. So avoiding these verbs can increase tension and improve flow.

6891657867_2b78f2abfeConsider the following sentences:

  • He was walking to the park.
  • I was dancing on stage.
  • She is staring at me.

Now check out these replacement sentences:

  • He walked to the park.
  • I danced on stage.
  • She stares at me.

See how much more direct and powerful these sentences are?  And of course,  this has a cumulative effect.  The more “-ing” verbs you cut out, the stronger your writing will seem. Consider this paragraph:

Abigail was walking along the bike trail. There was a boy riding his bike. He was smiling up at her as she passed. She started wondering what the boy was so happy about.

Now consider the alternative:

Abigail walked along the bike trail. A boy rode his bike and smiled as he passed her. She wondered what the boy was so happy about.

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8 thoughts on “Stop Using “-ing” Verbs in Your Novel

  1. Kate Sparkes says:

    I notice a lot of writers these days using a lot of “-ing” without the “was.” As in, “Hector crossed the library, pulling books from the shelves, muttering as he paced.” What do you think of those -ings? Do they weaken writing in the same was as they would if we used a more passive “was” in the sentence?

    (I’ve been wondering this for a while, as I see it a lot, and it’s creeping into my own present-tense writing)

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      The “-ing” verbs you’re talking about are used to indicate that something is happening simultaneously. I do think they weaken prose, but sometimes you do need to indicate that things happened at the same time. And it’s an easy way to have varied sentence structure, which is important. So I wouldn’t shy away from them all the time, but I also wouldn’t go overboard.

      The biggest mistake I see with this sort of sentence is two actions that can’t happen simultaneously. For example: “He stood up, walking across the room.”

  2. Haydee Mar says:

    I agree that in some cases the ing form weakens the writing, but without seeing someone’s work, it’s impossible to determine whether his/her writing would be strengthen by getting rid of it. I mean, in the hands of a skillful writer, the ing form might even have a lyrical effect.

    Before deciding whether the ing form is unnecessary, it’s important to know something about it. The first thing we should know it’s that the ing form has different functions.

    Let’s take a look at some of them:

    as a verb:

    Ing is used in progressive/continuous verb forms (tenses) to show that an ongoing action is taking place at some point in time.

    A progressive/continuous verb has two parts: a form of the verb “to be” + the present participle of a verb (verb ending in ing)

    Examples:

    Jace is running to the beach (present progressive tense).

    Jace has been writing a YA novel for over 30 years (present perfect progressive tense).

    Jace was walking home from work when I last saw him (past progressive tense).

    Jace will be walking home from now on (future progressive tense).

    note: All verb forms have their purpose, but how we handle them in our written work would depend mainly on the setting and the mood we want to create. “She cried” does sound better than “she was crying”. However, if you want to show continuity this won’t work. “She was crying when I came home” can’t be replaced with “she cried when I came home”.

    If you find that you’re using the progressive tense when describing most or all the action in a scene, replacing it with a perfect tense won’t necessarily help you improve the piece.

    Rowan was walking down the street, singing. People were looking through the windows of their houses as he passed. He stopped and looked up. An old woman was wiping a window. She looked down at him and flipped him the bird. He was thinking of doing the same, but changed his mind when a man stood next to the woman.

    Rowan walked down the street, singing. People looked though the windows of their houses as he passed. He stopped and looked up. A woman wiped a window. She looked down at him and flipped him the bird. He thought of doing the same, but changed his mind when he saw a man standing next to the woman.

    I don’t think the past perfect tense here has improved the scene much. The lack of detail, specificity, variety and rhythm still present.

    as a noun

    The ing form, when functioning as a noun, is called a gerund (see verbal and deverbal nouns). A gerund can do whatever a noun does: function as a subject, direct or indirect object, object complement… It’s usually used “to name” the actions of verbs:. Procrastination (to procrastinate) is the mother of hopelessness; He told me swimming (to swim) was good for my health.

    as an adjective

    As an adjective, the ing form is used to describe the characteristic of a person or thing, e.g. My boring husband is always sitting around the house doing nothing. (My husband is a boring person).
    Using ing form as an adjective can be very helpful when trying to be more efficient with description, e.g. Flaming torches lined up the wall. This description is better than saying something like: Torches lined up the wall. They burned as if they were on fire. Of course, the second sentence might be a better option if the focus is on the torches.

    We can also create compound adjectives with the ing form, e.g. take that crap-eating baby out of my sight; the toe-sucking tool said it was good.

    A participial phrase in the present contains the ing form and it functions as an adjective.

    Crying like a girl, Manny hid in the closet.
    Carla left the house taking her little sister with her.

    The example Kate gave above (Hector crossed the library, pulling books from the shelves, muttering as he paced…) is a good example of how to use participial phrases(pulling books…, muttering…)

    Like anything in writing, overusing or misusing the ing form can make the writing clunky and boring or just plain bad. However, when used “right”, the ing form can add variety to a sentence and can help build imagery.

    The best way of testing if your work reads well is by reading it aloud. Your ear will pick up any clunkiness and repetitiveness better than the eye. It’s also good to have other people reading your work to give you feedback.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      In the article (title and body), I specify that I am only referring to verbs ending in “ing,” not nouns or adjectives. And yes, it’s possible that some writers could use “ing” verbs for artistic value (it’s possible to go against any piece of advice for artistic value), but those writers are aware of what they’re doing. Most writers using “ing” verbs don’t realize they’re doing it and have weaker writing as a result. Cutting out the majority of “ing” verbs is a standard fiction editing practice. The only exceptions are when it is vital for the action to be perceived as ongoing (which is rare), and when the “ing” verb is indicating that something happened simultaneously (“He walked to the door, humming to himself.”).

      I hope this clears up any confusion!

  3. Brian Michaud says:

    Hi Ellen,
    Love the article, and thanks for the advice. I like how you leave room for artistic value. Take, for instance, your example:
    Abigail walked along the bike trail. A boy rode his bike and smiled as he passed her. She wondered what the boy was so happy about.
    What do you think about a small change like this?
    Abigail was walking along the bike trail when a boy peddled by and smiled as he passed. She wondered what the boy was so happy about.
    Would you consider this weak, or would this be an example of using an “ing” verb to create flow?
    I tend to avoid the “ing” verbs, but sometimes feel the need to throw them in to show a continuous or interrupted action. Thoughts?
    Thanks,
    Brian

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