The power of an ‘ing’ word is that it creates a progression of time. “The hero is flying over the city,” is more immediate than “The hero flies over the city” or “The hero flew over the city. “Ing” words have the ability to put readers right there in the moment.
Take a look at this paragraph from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea (Amazon)
There are 123 words in this paragraph and 6 of them are “ing” words. But what’s more important is where Hemingway positions them. They are close enough together that the “ing” words can almost echo off each other, building tension, but far enough away so that it’s not overdone.
You see, “ing” words come with a price. First, “ing” inherently adds another syllable to your word which can affect the pacing. Secondly, if you overload a sentence with too many “ing” words too close together, the power of immediacy is dampened by the repetitiveness of the sound.
Take a look at this sentence:
Remembering her time climbing the steps, Jodie was listening to the paramedics upstairs suggesting removing her ailing father through the window.
Six “ing” words appear in this 21-word sentence:
We have “Remembering” a present participle, “Ailing” an adjective, “climbing”, “listening”, and “suggesting” as verbs tenses, and “removing” as a gerund.
Grammatically, this sentence can pass, but you don’t need to read it too many times to identify the problem that the “ing” words cause.
Like so much of life, moderation is key. By limiting the amount of ‘ing’ words within a time and space, you build tension with fluid pacing. It allows your words to stand out independently.
Take a look at this revised passage:
Jodie remembered climbing the steps as the paramedics upstairs suggested removing her sickly father’s body through the window.
We went from six “ing” words in a 21-word sentence to two “ing” words in an 18-word sentence. Now, some might call it a matter of taste, but the second version is objectively punchier, and dare I say, more dramatic. By swapping out “ing” words with words that end with “ed” or “ly”, and rephrasing certain ideas, you allow the sentence to flow smoothly.
Keep an eye out and an ear open for those that are bunched together. Experiment with the spacing of these words and don’t ever feel trapped by your word choice, there is always a way to fix it.
This article was inspired by the tip from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (Amazon).
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