Friday, March 26, 2010


Back to writing for a bit...

"As" and "ing" Are Considered Hack and Amateurish Constructions
Les Edgerton

There are two stylistic constructions that are generally considered "hack" writing constructions, namely:

Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.
As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.

Both the as construction and the -ing construction as used above are correct grammatically and express the action clearly and unambiguously. But notice that both of these constructions take a bit of action ("She pulled off her gloves...") and tuck it away into a dependent clause. ("Pulling off her gloves..."). This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. And so if you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.

Another reason to avoid the as and -ing constructions is that they sometimes give rise to physical impossibilities. Say you're writing as an archaeologist character describing her field work and you write, "Disappearing into my tent, I changed into fresh clothes." The -ing construction forces simultaneity on two actions that can't possibly be simultaneous. The archaeologist didn't duck into the tent and pull on clean clothes at the same time - she was an archaeologist, not a contortionist.

A better alternative to the above example would be to write, "She pulled off her gloves, turned to face him." Or, you can make an -ing phrase less conspicuous by moving it to the middle of the sentence rather than the beginning. The participle construction has a particularly amateurish flavor when placed at the beginning of the sentence.

Look at the following examples to see how these constructions weaken your writing, with the as and -ing constructions in boldfaced type:

Ripping off several large, dripping hunks of burrito, she pulled a chair up to the kitchen table and took a large bite. As she chewed, she wondered who she was maddest at. James, she decided.

The doorbell rang. "Cheryl, it's me!" boomed a deep, authoritative voice. "James!"

Spotting her favorite red silk kimono crumpled on the floor, Cheryl stooped over and picked it up. As she pulled the kimono over her shoulders, she said a prayer of thanks that the wrinkled look was in.

As her fingers unfastened the chain lock, she wondered how James had gotten her address. It wasn't listed in the telephone book.

"Good evening," James greeted with a small bow as the door swung open.

"The bug man came last week," Cheryl said sarcastically, refusing to budge from the door, "I thought he'd exterminated all the pests in my life, but I guess he must have missed one. A big one."

"Funny, very funny," James said, clearly not amused as he leaned an arm against the door jamb. "Now you'd better let me in before I start causing a scene."

Now take a look at the same scene again, with the as and -ing clauses removed, along with some of the other problems, such as eliminating weak adverbs:

She pulled up a chair to the kitchen table and took a large bite of the burrito she'd found behind the milk and orange juice bottles. Who was she maddest at? Probably James.

The doorbell rang. "Cheryl, it's me!"

James. It had to be.

Cheryl sighed, stooped over and picked up her red silk kimono from the floor. Thank god the wrinkled look was in. But how had James gotten her address? It wasn't listed in the telephone book.

"Good evening." He made a small bow.

"The bug man came last week." Cheryl didn't budge from the door. "I thought he'd exterminated all the pests in my life, but I guess he must have missed a big one."

"Funny, very funny." James leaned an arm against the door jamb. "You'd better let me in before I start causing a scene."

This admittedly isn't deathless prose, but the editing has made the passage subtler and more professional. Notice that also missing in the second version are the weak adverbs and some of the other, unnecessary slag of the first version.

The point is, when an editor sees as and -ing constructions, a little red light goes off and he thinks, "Amateur." You don't want that to happen. This is one of the first things you should check for in your rewrites. Use your "Find" feature to seek out and destroy all of these hack constructions, along with the -ly adverbs that almost always just weaken the prose.


Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great lesson - very helpful. I will focus on this advice in today's revisions. :-)

Les Edgerton said...

Glad it may help, Shannon. This is one of the first lessons I give my students in class and it makes a difference.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

It's funny you should say that. I teach high school English and was thinking of putting together an "as" and "ing" lesson for my classes.

Les Edgerton said...

It's funny. When I was writing my first how-to writer's book, Finding Your Voice, I included this in one of the chapters. The very day I began writing it, my son Mike came home from middle school with a bunch of handouts from his teacher and she was starting a unit on teaching them how to write "As" and "-ing" constructions! It was unbelievable! I'm glad you're one of the "good guys" who doesn't do this.

Anonymous said...

Great advice. Thank you for including examples. A lot of advisers tell you what to do or what not to do, but don't show you what they're talking about. So thank you for taking your lesson a step farther!

Glynis Peters said...

Very helpful information, thanks for sharing. I will take a look at my ms, and correct those I find. A good editing exercise.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Glynis and welcome to the blog! I went to yours and really liked it and am linking it to mine.

Glynis Peters said...

Thanks Les, that is very nice of you.

Sarah Ahiers said...

I'm a huge fan of "ing" construction in my first drafts. For some reason it just helps my brain flow. Luckily for me, though, i'm hypersensitive to it, so when i'm revising i cut all those little buggers out

Les Edgerton said...

I do the same thing, Sarah. Wish I could say I avoided them, but they sneak in there and I have to do just what you do--go back and ferret them out!

Helen Ginger said...

Hi Les. I found your blog. 'Course, it wasn't lost. Great lesson. I've been tackling this, among other things, today on a manuscript for a client! One hour to edit 7 pages.

Straight From Hel

Les Edgerton said...

Wow, guys! You guys rock! I treasure each and every one of you, but have to say I died and went to heaven when I saw Helen Ginger's comment. I know most of you know who Helen is, but in case you don't, she's an icon in the writer's world. I am so honored she not only stopped by, but joined! She has helped so many writers in their careers that she deserves a special place in Writer's Heaven.

In case you don't yet follow her on her blog and newsletter, I'd urge you to do so. She's one of my heroes...

Glynis Peters said...

Helen is one of my favourite people of the writing world. I love the support and encouragement she gives me. She said good things about you on my site Les.:)

Les Edgerton said...

I agree with you about Helen, Glynis. She's one of the absolute best in helping writers there ever has been. When I grow up, I want to be a tenth as good as she is!

Owl said...

Hi Les,

You should give credit where credit is due. This is copied straight out of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Owl,
Good point... except I was using this in lectures when I taught for the UCLA Writer's Program... in 1996 and their book didn't come out 2004. I also included this in my first craft book, Finding Your Voice, published in 2003 a year before their book. So, if it's "word for word" perhaps the credit is owed... I did get it from someone else but couldn't remember who or I would have given credit. I suspect perhaps they got it from the same source. This is actually classic advice and older than dirt... I would never withhold credit for a source knowingly, but this is really old, old advice and has appeared in lots of places. I think Janet Burroway included it in her first edition of Writing Fiction, as have several other writers. If you look on page 13 of the hardcover edition of Finding Your Voice, you'll see this advice exactly as you see it here. Since this was a well-sold book then (and, actually, still is) and it came out a year before Browne and King's, who do you suppose owes who a credit? Perhaps it was taken from moi? Kind of looks like it...

Michelle said...

This article is copied almost word for word from "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and Dave King, first published in1993.

For writers looking for helpful advice, I would recommend "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" as a great resource.