No, I don’t really have that many pet peeves about the writing advice I find on so many excellent blogs. Maybe only 2145. Or maybe it’s just that I see this one so often that it feels like I’ve seen it 2145 times.
Here it is:
“Whenever you find that you’ve used an “-ing” form of a verb, get rid of it. It’s a writing sin!”
The idea behind this advice is that the sentence
She was eating her lunch when the phone rang.
Means the same thing as
She ate her lunch when the phone rang.
I have a feeling that most native English-speakers’ ear for their language tells them that these two sentences don’t mean the same thing and can’t be substituted for each other. The “to be” + “ing” form is the “progressive tense,” denoting an ongoing event or action, often, in narratives, functioning as a setting for some other action, probably involving the relative times of events.
Rain was falling by the time we went outside.
I walked out while he was still talking.
The usual advice is to change the progressive form to the simple past as in the example above or the simple present if you’re writing in present tense.
I am watching my son play outside as the phone begins to ring.
I watch my son play outside as the phone begins to ring.
Substituting the simple forms in place of the progressive introduces a suggestion of causality: One action caused the other.
I ate my lunch because the phone rang.
The ringing phone causes me to begin watching my son.
Note that the second example of this construction places a subtle emphasis on the ringing phone that is not present in the progressive example, linking the ringing phone with the decision or need to watch the child. Something momentous, probably ominous, underlies that call! (The guy she broke up with is making one last, futile push!)
The advice to cut this form appears to be connected to our need to “tighten” our writing. It also may result from the fear of the verb “to be” that seems to haunt so many writing pundits (a misplaced fear in my view).
Obviously, we all need to make sure our writing is as crisp as possible, with excess words excised. Scrutinizing your “-ing” choices does no harm, especially if (okay, like me) you begin to see a lot of them in your prose. Trying out different sentence options is seldom a wasted effort. For example,
I’d just smeared my first helping of foie gras on my eighty-grain artisanal flatbread when the phone rang.
I walked out right in the middle of his jibber-jabber.
So what I’m inveighing against here isn’t the need to eye all our favorite sentence patterns with suspicion. I get that. What I’m resisting is the idea that you can always substitute simple tenses for progressive versions and that you should do so at the sacred altar of cutting words.
Sometimes it’s okay to let words do what they want to do. They usually will, anyway.
Following up on an earlier post on hyphens from Connie J. Jasperson, here’s a handy discussion of the different uses of dashes and hyphens.
I’d like to add that, if you’re writing on a Mac, you can create an em dash by typing Space/Option/Hyphen. My new wireless keyboard, a Microsoft product, allows for most Mac keystrokes, but not that one, and I miss it.
There are other key combinations that can produce an en dash, but I seldom use this symbol so I don’t know them. Oh, and there are all kinds of symbols and special characters you can produce with various key formulas, especially math symbols. One day I’ll get around to exploring them all.
Another point of interest: both PC and Mac keyboards make using an em dash for interrupted dialogue really annoying. If you type dialogue like
“I thought I told you”
you can use an em dash to show that the dialogue has been cut off by an event or another speaker:
“I thought I told you—”
What you can’t see here because WordPress made the correction, is that, using smart quotes as we usually must, in Word, the quote marks after the em dash will be backward!
You can make them come out correctly by typing a period, as in
“I thought I told you—.”
In my experience, this construction doesn’t take the period, though some style sheets may differ. If you don’t want the period, you have to reposition your cursor (use the arrow keys), delete the period, then move your cursor again before hitting return.
I’ve tried storing the corrected text in Autocorrect, but so far that hasn’t worked reliably. However, good news! If you are using smart quotes, Find and Replace, that ever-useful tool, will usually turn the errant quote marks around.
One last snark about Microsoft keyboards: if you do want to use an em dash as I’ve illustrated to show interrupted conversation, you have to type a letter after the two hyphens, then space so the hyphens will convert to a dash, then backspace to delete the letter. I guess I could use Find/Replace creatively again to correct this, but it’s one of those little annoyances. Anybody got a better fix for em dashes on a PC keyboard?
Thanks, Connie, for another useful post!
We’re halfway through week 2 of National Novel Writing Month. Today we’re continuing our review the rules for common punctuation. This essay first posted on Feb 6, 2019. As always, if you’re already up on these rules, thank you for stopping by and happy writing!
Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.
I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.
Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way…
View original post 900 more words
Here’s some helpful enlightenment on one of the more annoying editing problems we all face. My own bête-noir is what Connie J. Jasperson tells me are “closed compounds”: combinations that are joined into a single word. I keep telling myself to try being consistent—is it “web site” or “website”? In some cases, if you’re writing for a particular publication, you can consult a style guide (I’m pretty sure that’s two words). If not, it’s off to a dictionary and then a round of “find/replace.” 🙂
National Novel Writing Month is in full swing. I am busy writing incomprehensible words that will require a great deal of revising and editing. But all that aside, this perfectly good post on hyphens and compound words was just lying around, so here you go! It was first posted on June 26, 2017, and since then, nothing has changed in the world of hyphenation. However, we can always use a little refresher when it comes to compound words and their usage.
Most people know that a compound word combines two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning.
Most people also know that there are two types of compounds:
- those written as single words, with no hyphenation…
View original post 670 more words
This piece from @Janice_Hardy echoes some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: Start with conflict, not crisis. How people deal with a crisis is much more interesting than the crisis itself.
Apropos though of making sure *something* is “happening,” Hardy is right on that as well. In my experience as a reader it takes special genius to create a character so interesting I’ll listen to him or her THINK for pages and pages. As a mortal, I’ve found that setting up the story conflict in a scene built around the central characters gets me into the story so much more effectively. I’ve also learned that any introspective scene that goes on for more than a page–or even half a page–needs some other character to jump in and interrupt it.
So check out Hardy’s advice here. I think it’s spot on.
on Fiction University:
Sometimes really great advice is anything but helpful.
Which it should, as it’s great advice. But it’s also like saying, “show, don’t tell.” We know we ought to do it, but we don’t always know how, and those four words don’t help us with the beginnings of our novels.
This can be especially hard on new writers, because they might think they’re doing everything right, but still get negative feedback or even rejections on their manuscripts. “I do start with action,” they cry. “Can’t you see that car barreling off that cliff there? What do I have to do, blow up a planet?”
Maybe it’s the movie industry and all those summer blockbusters, but say “action scene” and most people envision something Michael Bay-ish—car chases…
View original post 75 more words
I’ve been AWOL recently because I’ve been busy writing! I’m trying to slide Book 3 of my mystery trilogy into a channel where it will start floating right along (I suspect you get that metaphor), and I’ve been keyboarding the longhand draft of my “Horse Show Book” (great titles, huh?) that I just completed last week. My hope is that the closing scenes of this psychological suspense/mystery will work as well when I type them as they seemed when I (literally) penned them. We’ll see.
Apropos of that milestone, I had the following conversation with a non-writer friend the other day. I wonder if only writers will “get” this:
Friend: When are you going to publish your Horse Show Book?
Me: Oh, it will be a good while.
Friend: But you said you’d finished it!
I am unable to resist posting this. Sorry. Ignore at will.
And oh, yeah, “lie/lay/lain” is CORRECT here.
If you are interested, you should be able to find the group “Society for the Preservation of Irregular Verbs” in your social media. Looks like fun!
Thanks for more important advice from one of my favorite bloggers, Anne R. Allen. I think I’m at a “chaos point” myself right now, but at least I do have that last scene in mind–like Anne recommends!
We all have a writing craft issue or two…or three or four or five, no matter where we are in our careers. Yes, even professional authors who have written ten or more novels. I’m wrestling with some myself with my forthcoming Camilla book, Catfishing in America, which is still, alas, only half way there. It’s at that stage that Melodie Campbell called the “Chaos Point” in her wonderful post for us “My Novel is a Mess.”
Thing is—creating compelling narrative takes more than great characters, sparkling dialogue and exciting action. All those elements have to come together in one story.
I suspect I’m not the only one for whom this list is useful! Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing it!