Three writing mistakes that mark writing as that of an amateur seem to be breeding like flies in books written by unschooled or inadequately schooled authors. Clearly, these stylistic mistakes are little known, and it’s time that changed. I read mostly independently published books, and unfortunately, though there is a great number of superbly written books in indie publishing, I also see a lot of writing marred by these blunders. If not checked, these 3 writing mistakes, will rapidly, all by themselves, diminish the power, beauty and precision of the written English language.
How such writing mistakes diminish the power of the written language
It works like this. One author writes a number of books all containing the following mistakes, but they market their books well and use a cut-price promotion to get one of their books onto a book bestseller list. Then they call themselves a best-selling author, and many readers and authors think their books must be good – simply through the power of the suggestion of social proof provided by the best-seller status (despite the fact that such labels can be essentially meaningless).
Even without the best-seller status, a poorly written book can have hundreds of positive reviews, and only a few poor reviews – often written by editors and readers who know what makes genuinely good prose – so again, the apparent social proof is that such books must be good. Their story may be entertaining, of course. The plot may be good, the pacing may be excellent, the dialogue natural, and characterisation strong, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about quality prose.
Because readers and authors read such books and assume that they must be good because they’ve sold well and/or have lots of positive reviews, they accept these writing mistakes without realising that the book could be a whole lot better if it didn’t contain such faults. They don’t see the weaknesses in the writing. Partly because they’re not expecting to see any.
Then the authors who read these books write in the same way without ever realising that they’re writing poor prose. And if they don’t employ a line editor—face palm! Unfortunately, some clearly don’t—or if they employ a line editor who also lacks the knowledge of what makes good prose, then their books add to the problem. Each book published with these writing mistakes plays a role in diminishing the power, precision and beauty of written English.
It’s an editor’s lament!
Writing rules are not made to be broken; they’re made because following them makes for better quality writing.(NB, ‘Writing’ in this instance is an adjective modifying ‘rules’, not a participle)
1. Starting sentences with ‘ing’ ending participles
This is the worst. It’s my pet hate in writing, and I’ll stop reading a book if it’s overused—not only because it makes for tedious reading but also because it indicates a general lack of writing craftsmanship, indicating that there will likely be other issues in the writing as well. Such a sentence construction is not necessarily grammatically incorrect—though it can be—but it’s rarely used well and mostly weakens the writing.
The rule is: avoid beginning a sentence with an ‘ing’ ending participle phrase.
Running through the trees, she shouted for help.
Although this can be effective occasionally (once per 10,000 words is a good guideline), excessive repetition can make the prose flat and ‘samey’, and at the very least lacking in sophistication. It’s often awkward as well. It gives the impression that the author is trying to do something different, and that’s the problem—it’s noticeable. In good writing, we don’t notice the words.
Authors, try restructuring sentences to avoid this construction. Remember also that whatever action you assign an ‘ing’ ending to is a subsidiary action and that when you use this kind of construction the two actions must be simultaneous, as in the running and shouting in the example above.
Going out the front door, he jumped into the car. This doesn’t work because he can’t jump in the car and go out the door at the same time. These are sequential actions, not simultaneous.
Never use the ‘ing’ ending participle for the dominant action in a sentence. For example, Running through the trees, she thought of Henry. Running is the main action. Thinking is a subsidiary action. So if you must use this construction, it should be Thinking of Henry, she ran through the trees.
And that points out another reason why this construction weakens the writing. Writing is more powerful, more immediate, and therefore more engaging if the dominant action comes first in the sentence. The reader shouldn’t have to wade through the subsidiary action to get to the main point—in this instance the fact that she was running.
It’s a mark of a hack writer
In the chapter on sophistication in the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Brown & David King, on page 193 they say that this construction is a mark of a ‘hack’ writer. (Ouch.) It’s also something my editing mentor—a woman who has worked for mainstream publishers in Australia for decades—pointed out to me.
Ignore this advice and some people will discard your work as amateurish. You’ll never know because they won’t tell you; they’re too busy editing books, teaching their creative writing students or reading better quality books.
If you think this rule about avoiding using ‘ing’ ending participles heading up sentences is a matter of stylistic choice and one that you can afford to ignore, show me a book published by the big-five mainstream publishers that overuses this construction. Also ask yourself if doggedly holding onto a few dubious sentence constructions isn’t more a matter of ego than writing practice.
Besides, how often do sentences starting with a verb ending in ‘ing’ actually sound good?
Does this really sound better?
Running down the road, she got hit by a car. Thinking quickly, and rolling out of the way of oncoming traffic, she ended up in the gutter but still alive.
She ran down the road but got hit by a car. Quick thinking saved her. She rolled out of the way of oncoming traffic and ended up, still alive, in the gutter.
And so far, I’ve only talked about the grammatically correct version. Don’t let your participle dangle. When you do use a participle phrase, make sure that it connects to a human agency. The word after the comma, should refer to a human, not an object.
Wrong: Having been named chairman, the meeting was called by Craig.
This is called a dangling participle because the participle is not attached to a human agency. Craig was named chairman, not the meeting.
Correct: Having been named chairman, Craig called the meeting.
Not all sentences beginning with ‘ing’ ending words are problematic, however. For clarification on the difference between gerunds, present participles and participle adjectives, read this article.
2. Overuse of ‘as’, particularly at the start of a sentence.
Cut back the ‘as he’ or ‘as she’ constructs. They weaken the writing by making one of the actions subservient to and therefore less important than the other. (That’s why it’s called a subordinate clause.) Replace the subordinating conjunction ‘as’ with a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and’ and you’ll have two independent clauses of equal strength.
‘As’ at the beginning of a sentence is particularly best avoided if you want immediate writing because it’s a periodic sentence—the reader has to wait until the end of the sentence to find out what’s happening. It puts a delay before the action, and focuses on that rather than on the action itself.
As he’d heard about the coming rain, John turned off the sprinkler.
John turned off the sprinkler as he’d heard about the coming rain.
John heard about the coming rain and turned off the sprinkler.
The last version gives emphasis to the fact that rain was coming, instead of making it of secondary importance as the other constructions do.
3. Overuse of ‘was’, particularly with the present participle
The verb ‘to be’ and all its variations (be, am, are, is, being, was, were, been) are known as passive verbs. They are general verbs, and rather bland compared to the more specific options that can often be used in their stead. Prose with a lot of such verbs lacks immediacy and is less engaging than prose that uses more active verbs. ‘Was’ and ‘were’ are the main ones writers overuse. Your prose will improve if you replace them with a specific, active verb, or restructure the sentence to avoid them.
He was after her like a shot. (Passive.)
He raced after her like a shot. (Active.)
She was at the lookout, staring over the railing. (Passive.)
She stood at the lookout, staring over the railing. (Active.)
Their toes were numb with cold. (Passive.)
The cold numbed their toes. (Active.)
When I’m self-editing, I search for all those ‘was’es and ‘were’s and see if I can write the sentences better without them. I usually can. This one tip made a huge difference to the quality of my prose.
Using ‘was’ or ‘were’ or ‘is’ or any other version of the verb ‘to be’ along with a participle ending in ‘ing’ is very passive where there are better alternatives. Replace these forms with a more active verb, or see how your sentence reads if you restructure the sentence to avoid it. Often it’s just a matter of replacing the ‘ing’ ending participle with an ‘ed’ ending one. The ‘ed’ verb forms are more immediate than the ‘ing’ ending forms.
She was running along the road.
She ran along the road.
They were coughing up blood.
They coughed up blood.
He was skipping towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.
He skipped towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.
If it was important that the skipping occurred at the time of a character’s observation of the event, you would leave it as ‘was skipping’, as in the following: She turned to the sound of feet on pavement. He was skipping towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.
Your role in maintaining the quality of our written language
Anyone who writes or reads—especially those who review—has a role to play in maintaining the quality of our written language. All it needs is education. Once authors understand the points I’ve made here, they will avoid using such writing mistakes in their books—hence this article. I implore you to take your role seriously and share it.
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Anita Dow says
This is such an important post, Tahlia. Well done for highlighting how good prose gets diluted over time by authors reading other authors’ weak writing.
Tahlia Newland says
Thanks Anita. I hope the word gets around because I see a lot of stories that sound good, but when I look at the sample I see these kinds of issues, and I simply can’t bear to read bad prose. Authors only write like that because they don’t know any better, and they either haven’t bothered with a line edit or their line editor lacks education – which is a concern. If the editors don’t know this sort of thing, then the English language is really stuffed!