“Writing away madly, he made this fatal little mistake.”

Read that headline again.  Can you spot the mistake? 

Okay, it’s not a mistake, per se, but it’s something that newer writers do all the time, and professional writers don’t.

At least, you don’t see it in published work very often, because editors cut it out like a malignant growth.

It’s the two-part structure of a sentence, the first being a percursor to action, the second being action itself.  Sometimes the two parts connect, sometimes not (as in, “Adjusting his tie, he watched the two cars collide.”  Not good). 

It’s a tense thing and a passive vs. active thing… a present/passive tense, followed by a past-tense that is in context to the overall narrative.  “Waiting, he clung to hope.”  Present/passive, past. 

Doesn’t work.  At least not well enough.

Again, it’s not technically wrong, but if you want your work to hit home on a first read — and thus be perceived as something more evolved than a newbie — avoid these bad sentences at all costs.

Here are some examples of this little stumble in action… and then, in italics, the same intention rewritten in a more professional, or at least palatable — way.

***

Checking to see if anyone was watching, he took a seat next to her.

He sat next to her after checking to make sure nobody would see.

***

Admiring herself in the mirror, she smiled as the telephone rang.

She was smiling at what she saw in the mirror when the telephone suddenly rang.

***

Sitting up in alarm, Beth pulled the covers under her chin and screamed.

She screamed.  Loud and piercing, the sound muffled by the blanket she’d pressed to her face.

***

Dropping to her knees, she rested her forehead against the granite slab.

She dropped to her knees, resting her head against a granite slab as she wept tears of regret after writing the sentence the wrong way earlier.

***

An overhead light flickered, bathing the room in alternating levels of light.

The room danced with shadows cast by a fickering overhead light.

***

Momentarily pausing, they allowed an elderly man hobbling behind a walker to pass.

They paused to allow an octegenarian piloting a walker to pass.

*** (End of examples, back to my little rant.)

You can get away with a few of these, but that doesn’t often happen because writers who opt for this structure tend to overkill it.  It’s like a speech pattern that gives away one’s lack of formal eduction… the orator doesn’t hear it, but everyone else does.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, don’t sweat this… yet. 

Just be sure to go back and kill these gremlins once December arrives.  Otherwise, begin to notice as you hatch them, and realize that this is a fly swimming in your otherwise delicious soup. 

Scoop it out before company arrives and nobody will know the difference.

30 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

30 Responses to “Writing away madly, he made this fatal little mistake.”

  1. Hey Larry,

    Intriguing idea, but I’m not sure I get this either:

    You rewrote “Checking to see if anyone was watching, he took a seat next to her.” as “He sat next to her after checking to make sure nobody would see.”

    Isn’t “checking” in the rewrite still in present tense? Or does the “after” change the tense?

    What about “He checked to see if anyone was watching, then took a seat next to her.” ?

    Now I’m going to be hyper-aware of this construct as I do the NaNo, like someone saying, “Gee, isn’t it weird the way your tongue touches your teeth, all the time?” Go on, try NOT to think about it.

  2. @Phillip — my first rewrite begins, “he sat…” which is past tense. Any further action from that is also in past tense (“after checking” is in context to that initial past tense context). The next line you quote… all past tense.

    It is confusing. Let me try another example.

    Wrong: “Sitting steadfast, she refused to provide false encouragement.”

    Better: She sat steadfast, refusing to provide false encouragement.

    Or:

    Wrong: Lifting her fork, she poised it in mid-air.

    Better: Kate lifted her fork, poising it mid-air.

    Or..

    Wrong: Waiting patiently, he thumbed through a magazine.

    Better: He patiently thumbed through a magazine as he waited.

    It’s an “ear” thing, once you see it, you can’t un-see it… as you mentioned. Hope this helps. L.

  3. Thinking about his reply, he started to type. No, that’s wrong.

    He backspaced, then typed again, thinking, “Now I’ve got it.”

    What fun!

    Thanks for the insight, Larry!

  4. Shirls

    I heard this a lot in the audiobook I just finished. It was irritating, but I figured out it was an attempt by the author to avoid beginning sentences with a personal pronoun. It was written in first person, so she couldn’t use the narrator’s proper name. I’m pleased to read in your post that my instincts were right!

  5. Her head rested on a granite slab after dropping to her knees with grief.

    Okay. That cracks me up. Her head dropped to her knees with grief?

    Even if you rearrange this:
    After dropping to her knees with grief, her head rested on a granite slab.

    Not a very strong example of how to improve that sentence. But still a good post and one I’ll be sharing. Thanks.

    (Might I suggest:
    She dropped to her knees, rested her head on the granite slab, in grief.

    Bleh. You know, if this sentence were in my writing, I’d chuck it altogether and write something else. Every revision sounds overwrought and, what’s worse, clumsy.

  6. Yeah, and I do know I should close a parenthetical aside but apparently only remember to do so after a second cup of coffee.

  7. Thanks for the tip! This is a good one. I’ll be watching for it.

  8. Marcia

    “Her head rested on a granite slab after dropping to her knees with grief.” I have the same reaction to this. It reads like her head is dropping to her knees.

  9. Cynthia Robertson

    It’s not just a ‘tense thing’ in the examples you give, it’s also the difference between active voice and passive. It’s almost always best to opt for active with today’s readers.
    Interesting examples.

  10. Laureli Illoura

    In being hyper-aware of this construct, I wrote with increased paranoia that my writing sounded immature. LOL

    (but I’m serious)

  11. The original construction is a variation of “ing” disease – the use of too many present participles in a story – also an indicator of an amateur writer and considered a weak construction. Your corrections, though not wrong, would fall into this pit if used too often. As an editor, I stress to my clients that they should use no more than three present-participial phrases per page. Astute readers cringe at the ing-ing-ing overuse.

    If I may borrow a couple of your examples, easy ways to fix them are these:
    He checked to see if anyone was watching and took a seat next to her. (Readers understand that “and” can join simultaneous or sequential phrases. Present participles require simultaneous action.)
    She dropped to her knees and rested her forehead against the granite slab. (In the original construction, her actions couldn’t conceivably be simultaneous – or she might suffer a headache.)
    Beth sat up in alarm. She yanked the covers under her chin and screamed.

    Writers, please beware of overuse of present participles. I recently started to read a manuscript that had thirteen participial constructions on the first two pages. I stopped reading and promptly sent it back with instructions to revise them throughout the manuscript. I think three per page is plenty and allows their use in situations where a revision would be awkward.

  12. While starting a sentence with a present participle phrase might not be grammatically ideal, the practice is in such common usage that few readers would even be aware of any problem (I find it’s a good way to break up sentence ryhthms–and I’m something of a grammar stickler!). Sometimes very proper grammar structure can come off as stilted, forced, or pedantic–not good, to my mind!

  13. Tsk, tsk, tsk! Good advice. Going on a Gremlin search very soon. I never thought about it but it makes me uncomfortable so I need to check! Thanks you, Larry! Other warnings welcome — even if it makes us hiss! 🙂

  14. I know new writers do this because they realize all their sentences are starting with pronouns – which was how you fixed all of the wrong sentences as well.

    I agree that this in excess is ridiculous, but wonder if you have other suggestions beyond starting nearly every sentence with pronouns.

    I teach high school – so many stories with pronoun-itis…

  15. @Brian – totally agree with you on this one. “Proper” classroom English isn’t always the best stylistic choice. Rarely, in fact. The rules are gone, but discriminating taste still prevails. The “mistake” I’m writing about here almost always sounds sophomoric, and the more it appears the more conclusions an agent or editor will draw (all of them bad).

    So there’s two things to be wary of… avoidance of credibility-compromising stylistic choices, and the avoidance of classroom perfection. Passion and power rule the day, in my view, trumping grammar every time.

  16. @all RSS Feed subscribers — the version you received contained a bonehead of a sentence on my part: the rewrite of this one: “Her head rested on a granite slab after dropping to her knees with grief.” You’ll notice above, after being alerted, that I’ve already revised it. Trying to walk the walk in responding to criticism when I get it. Which I certainly do.

  17. “If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, don’t sweat this… yet.”

    Okay. Because I’m 44k in. I’m a prime offender and didn’t know this was a problem. Thanks for opening my eyes to this. Definitely something I’ll consider in the rewrite, as well as the advice from Nann. Varying sentence structure is difficult if the only option is to start with a pronoun. Looking forward to any suggestions in response to Tasha’s question.

  18. @Tasha. I can suggest a couple of solutions based on the original sentences.
    After checking to see if anyone was watching, he took a seat next to her. OR: After he checked to see if anyone was watching, he took a seat next to her.
    While admiring herself in the mirror, she smiled as the telephone rang. OR: While she was admiring herself in the mirror, she smiled as the telephone rang.
    Alarmed, Beth sat up, pulled the covers under her chin, and screamed.

    Again, overuse of the present participle is a bugaboo to watch out for. As is pronoun-itis.

  19. Kristin

    Whoops, my amateurism is showing.

    I do this all the time, and I see now just how pompous it sounds. Not to mention it sucks the energy right out of the sentence so I’m left feeling sleepy after reading it.

    This site is just full of helpful tips in and information. I can easily credit this site to my growth as a writer, so thank you Larry!

  20. I liked this advice Larry. I’m wondering if you could do more of this kind of structure advice. A lot of your posts are of the big picture type and this kind of structure is helpful. I’d love to see more of it.
    Thanks, as always, for your help and insight.

  21. I don’t see the appeal anyway.
    The sentence just sounds clumsy structured like that.
    Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.
    Possibly one of the best advice I have been given.

    Rich

  22. Amanda

    I have been writing madly this month as well. And I KNOW that I do this allllllll the time. I won’t try to stop now as it will probably affect my momentum, but I will definitely be going through and re-writing all those clumsy sentences. My question is, why do we all do it? Obviously it’s something that many writers do (until they know better), so why? Just curious.

  23. Kathy B

    This post reminds me of advice given in “Self Editing for Fiction Writers.” They agree that -ing verbs are weaker and come across as the least important action. So if you use them, be careful of which verb you put them on.

  24. Nick

    THAT’S what I’ve been doing wrong all this time!! I’ve heard for years that I’m not paying attention to tenses, but I never knew what they were talking about. Now I realize: I DO THIS ALL THE TIME. Well, not anymore. Thanks again, Larry!

  25. Gina

    Oh my God, thank you for these examples. I feel like I just got a sty out of my eye.

    Not only do the revisions improve the flow of what is happening in the read, but they completely elevate the rhythms. So much better on many levels.

    Thank you Dr. Larry.

  26. ted

    I see this in my own writing when I’m trying to give a little variety to my sentance structure. So without making this mistake , how do you keep every sentence from being noun verbed ….

  27. @Ted — you bring up a good point. It’s like profanity, in way… used sparingly, in the right company, it can be very effective and “hip” up a conversation with a touch of passion. Then again, if one does it all the time, it says the wrong thing and takes away from the point.

    So I hear you. Just be careful and strategic. Even a few uses starts to smack of, well, the wrong thing… but again, less is more, which means “zero” may not be the best choice for you, either. Hope this helps. L.

  28. ted

    I see this in my own writing when I’m trying to give a little variety to my sentance structure. So without making this mistake , how do you keep every sentence from being noun verb…

  29. One of my critique partners does this all the time, and I’ve had difficulty explaining why exactly these type of sentences don’t sit well with me, even though they are not *technically* wrong. Thanks for explaining what I’ve been trying to tell her! I think these sorts of sentences pop up in first drafts when you’re trying to vary the sentence structure or avoid a long line of “He did this, she did that” paragraphs. Reworking them during the revision process can make for more powerful and clear writing, even if it makes varying structure a challenge.

  30. Good advice, except it has nothing to do with the passive voice. Passive is constructed with the past participle (usually the -ed form, although there are many irregular verbs), and not the present participle (always the -ing).

    For example, this is active, simple past tense: He cooked breakfast. This is passive: He was cooked for breakfast. That is, the action of the verb occurs on the subject. The verb: to cook. Another example, active, present progressive tense: A doctor is erasing her memory. Passive: Her memory is being erased by a doctor. The verb: erase.

    Hope this clears it up a little.