But unfortunately, I sometimes fall in line with my father’s approach to most things—cayenne pepper, laundry detergent, dessert, whatever—if a little bit makes it good, a lot must make it great. Ahh, not always. I remember the second five pounds of red beans my dad had to cook to mix in with the first five pounds we couldn’t eat because he applied his philosophy to the pepper.
Such is true with ing words. A sprinkling here and there adds to the flavor of your story, but include too many, and they weigh it down. They make it weak and gangly. I don’t want to go all ninth grade English teacher on you, but let’s first look at the types of ing words.
- Gerund – verb transformed into a noun with ing, e.g. running, sleeping, skating
- Adjective – ing word that modifies a noun, e.g. sweltering heat, shining sun
- Progressive – used to express ongoing action, is running, was sleeping, are skating
So, what’s the problem with ing words? Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, gives two main reasons why these words weaken your writing.
- They add a syllable to the original word and often make the sentence more cumbersome and less direct.
- The ing words begin to sound alike, e.g. running, jumping, throwing, skipping.
Writers sometimes overuse gerunds or adjectives, but we routinely use a helping verb like is, am, are, was or were coupled with an ing word—was running, is sleeping—when the simple present or past tense would suffice—ran, sleeps.
What’s the best way to see if your story passes the ing test? Pull out something you’ve written recently and circle all the ing words in the text. What’s the verdict? Do you have too many ings? If so, see if you can drop the helping verb and use the past or present tense of the main verb in some instances. How did that work?
Remember, you don’t have to eradicate every ing word in sight. Just make sure the ones you have are chosen deliberately and serve your purpose.