Stop slinging INGs and bring the zing!
(NOTE: If you haven't read my entries, The "ING" Thing – Part 1 and The "ING" Thing – Part 2, please do so before continuing with this entry.)
In this continuing discussion of The "ING" Thing, I get right to a series of examples of poor ING use, and I offer some preferred alternatives. The suggestions I offer are, in each case, merely one (or two) of many possible alternatives. Perhaps you will conjure your own improved version; after all, we each have our own distinctive styles. The key is to correct the poor writing and, in doing so, to keep it strong and direct.
BAD: John was sitting in his chair smiling at Jane.
Note: First, kill the passive verb construction and keep it active. Second, why is the chair smiling at Jane? I know, I know—that's not what the author meant to say. (See my 3-part example in The "ING" Thing – Part 2 if you're unclear on why this is a problem.) Third, and let's just be honest about this—bluch!
GOOD (Simple): John sat in his chair and smiled at Jane.
GOOD (Detailed): John stiffened his back and squared his shoulders, as he tapped his fingers in a steady thump, thump, thump on the arm of his chair, and smiled at Jane.
BAD: John and Jane were walking home from school, taking a new route, talking as they went along, hoping to enjoy some private time together.
Note: First, why, oh why, has the author forced the reader to pause three times in one sentence? Second, kill the passive verb construction and keep it active. Third, must those actions be ongoing in the Past Tense narrative? Fourth, the weak verb choices do little to evoke a strong image in the reader's mind. Fifth, say it with me again—bluch!
GOOD (Simple): John and Jane chatted as they strolled home from school. They'd chosen a new route in the hopes they would enjoy some private time together.
GOOD (Detailed): John and Jane strolled home along a new route, which they'd hoped would offer fewer distractions, more privacy. They chatted about their day at school, their favorite subjects and teachers, their friends—anything to draw out their time together. John fidgeted with his fingers as he considered holding Jane's hand. Perhaps it was too soon for that.
BAD: Jane was sitting in the bedroom, trembling and crying, dreading John arriving home from work.
Note: Yikes! The author gives us 5 INGs in a single, 15-word sentence chocked full of the usual problems. Even worse, it hints at serious tension, conflict and emotion, but fails to deliver the knockout punch. I can almost hear its screams as it begs the author to stop all the weak telling and to paint a picture instead, imagery that draws the reader right in as if she's a part of the scene.
GOOD (Detailed): Jane slumped into the armchair in the corner of her bedroom, as if trying to hide within it. A single, stubborn tear slipped down her cheek as she stared through the window at the empty driveway. It wouldn't empty for long. She clasped her cold hands together to control their shaking, curled her fingers into a yin-yang s-shape, and pulled until sweat pooled in her palms. John would arrive home from work at any moment, and then…. A shiver bolted down her spine as she sank deeper into the chair. She could not escape. She could only wait.
BAD: She quickly grabbed her purse from the table, feeling in the pockets for her keys, and ran for the door.
Note: First, if you've been at this writing game for a while, you already know that weak adverbs are nasty. Second, since the author felt it necessary to tell us the character acted "quickly," he clearly wanted to convey a sense of urgency. However, the weak verb/adverb choices (quickly grabbed, feeling, ran) and the slow pace of the sentence (two commas) combine to dampen any potential urgency. Hint: If you want rapid, tense action, you must provide rapid sentences with ramped-up action. To say a character "quickly" did something, and then to immediately force the reader to pause, is to defeat your own intention. Again, keep it strong and direct.
GOOD: She snatched her purse from the table and rifled through the pockets as she bolted for the door.
BETTER: She snatched her purse from the table and rifled through the pockets as she bolted for the door and kicked it open and leapt down the steps.
Note: You wouldn’t normally create such a sentence without separating the independent clauses with commas. However, when you have a particularly tense scene in which you want to convey breakneck urgency, give the reader a breakneck pace. Just pick your spots carefully and don't overdo it, lest you render impotent this most effective tool.
BAD: Wanda, oriental features gleaming proudly, standing among the other honorees, smiled.
Note: Yikes! Double yikes! Triple yikes! Seriously, need I say anything more? I'll bet you can create a scene that conveys the author's intentions—something the author failed to do. Go ahead; give it a shot.
'Til next time, remember: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.