Today’s post focuses on word choice. I’ve just finished reading a mystery novel, and while I enjoyed the plot and the characters, the editor in my soul says I can’t recommend it. Therefore, I will not name the book or the author.
This novel was meticulously self-edited. I could see it was run through the author’s writer’s group many times, and the major flaws were ironed out. There were few typos, and the formatting was done well.
Self-editing is a struggle. The eye is biased when it comes to the structural flaws of our own work. This is why the smart author runs things past their writing group. The problem I see most often is that writing group members are not usually editors. They are acquainted with the basics of grammar but aren’t familiar with some advanced functions. They may have been taught grammar in school but have forgotten some as they had no use for it until they began writing.
And some never understood it because of the way it was presented in the first place. When something is boring, we don’t pay attention.
Let’s be real—style and grammar guides are tedious and hard to understand. We may own them but we hate to crack them open. Trust me, researching grammar gets easier and more interesting as you advance in writing craft.
Unfortunately, the novel I wanted to enjoy was ruined by the opening line of the first paragraph on page one. That flaw interested me, so the editor in my head continued reading, analyzing why such a promising book failed.
Positives: The characters were engaging, and the plot was an original, well-conceived premise. The mystery was intriguing, and the setting was shown well.
Negatives: The author’s penchant for beginning sentences with gerunds – “ing” words – and peppering them throughout the narrative soured me on what could have been a strong novel. The opening paragraph ran similarly to this 29-word sample, with gerunds at the front of three sentences in a row:
Moving along quickly, we hurried through the store. Huddling behind the shelves, we waited until Mason had passed. Moving quickly again, we made it safely out the door.
The rest of the book was written in that style.
If I had been in her writing group, I would have suggested (gently) that she either move the gerunds to the final clause of each sentence or eliminate them. I know it’s frustrating to hear an editor suggest you completely reword prose you have already shaped and reshaped. But trust me, a reader will appreciate it.
We hurried through the store, huddling behind the shelves until Mason had passed, then slipped out the door.
Ten words were removed from the first example, but the scene’s intention isn’t altered.
This is where the choice and placement of words come into play. Active prose is constructed of nouns followed by verbs or verbs followed by nouns.
- Moving the verbs to the front of the sentence makes it stronger.
- Nouns are inherently inert but feel active when followed by verbs.
Words ending in “ing” fall into the family of gerunds. They are often used as verbs that have been turned into nouns, such as running and dancing. They are usually intransitive verbs (but sometimes they are transitive) and are necessary for good writing. But used improperly and too freely, gerunds are action’s kryptonite. (Edited 11-23-2022 for clarity.)
We followed the river, running alongside it until we could go no farther.
Writers who use gerunds too freely mean well. After all, a gerund began life as a verb but underwent an identity change, becoming a noun by adding the “ing” suffix.
Authors who lead sentences off with them are trying to get their prose moving.
So now we know a new truth: when we lead off our sentences with “ing” words, we are opening with a verb that wants to be a noun and behaves like one. This word choice separates the reader from the action, so while a gerund is a verb form, it is a word with a supporting role.
The abundance of gerunds we put into the first draft are an aspect of passive phrasing, the mental shorthand we use to first tell the story.
In most first drafts, the passive phrasing is a code. The author’s “subconscious writer” embeds signals in the first draft. It tells the author that the characters are transitioning from one scene to the next. They, or their circumstances, are undergoing a change. This change is something the reader must know.
In this regard, gerunds and other passive code words are the author’s first draft-multi-tool. They are a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One word, one packet of letters that serves many purposes and conveys multiple mental images to the author.
At some point, we will finish the first draft, giving our novel a finite ending. When we begin revising that first draft, gerunds and passive phrasing, these code words and clues we left ourselves, will tell us what we must expand on. They show us the scene, and we rewrite it so the reader can see it too.