Inoculate Against the "ING" Disease

by Marg McAlister


There's a very common error that gives away an inexperienced writer every time: the practice of starting too many sentences with a word ending in "ING".

This leads to a secondary problem - monotonous sentence structure that soon has the reader's eyes glazing over. (Your reader may not be able to work out what it is that is making her uncomfortable, but she will feel the effects. Before too long she'll put the book down and go look for something more interesting to do - like clean grout with a toothbrush.)

The rule of thumb is: Try to avoid starting sentences with words ending in "ING". While it's okay to do this occasionally, it's best to try to eliminate it from your work as much as possible. The following examples will show you why.

Extracting the phone from the her bag, Marie picked up her cup of coffee and walked into the lounge room. Sinking down into the armchair near the window, she sighed heavily and sipped, staring out at the traffic.

It looked like rain. That suited her mood.

Still trying not to think about losing her job, she focused on what she could do to improve her situation. Setting down her coffee mug, she picked up the notepad and pen she always kept on the coffee table, and started making notes. She had plenty of skills. What she could do was start thinking about how they could be applied to a range of jobs.

Jobs. It was Wednesday - usually a good day to look in the "Positions Vacant". Stretching down to pick up the paper, she put the pen between her teeth and turned the pages to check out the jobs being advertised. Frowning, she scanned the columns quickly. Plenty of pre-school jobs, but she had no training in child care. There were half a dozen others that sounded good, but she didn't have the qualifications.

Worried, she dropped the paper and stared at the street outside again. What was she going to do? She'd been barely coping as it was; she had no resources to help tide her over until she found another job.

No, she mustn't start getting upset. Something would come up - even if she had to wash dishes. Setting her lips firmly, she got up. She'd clean the house. Physical labour, that's what she needed.

In the example above, there are no fewer than seven sentences (in six short paragraphs!) that start with a word that ends in "ING". (I'm not counting the word 'Something' because it's not an action, but I AM counting 'Still trying..'.) The problem is two-fold:

(a) If you look closely at each sentence, you'll see that what the author is doing is giving the reader two things to think about each time. The sentence begins with a mental picture of one action performed by Marie, then finishes with another - which is usually the one the writer really wants the reader to focus on. The writing would be stronger if the scene were rewritten to focus firmly on what what is important.

(b) The writer has set up monotonous sentence patterns. This is the kind of thing that loses readers. Most of them won't know WHY they're getting restive - they'll just know that the writing is not grabbing them. The sentence pattern you'll see here is:


Extracting the phone from the her bag + , + Marie + picked up...

Sinking down into the armchair near the window + , + she + sighed heavily.

Still trying not to think about losing her job + , + she + focused on...

Setting down her coffee mug + , + she + picked up...

Stretching down to pick up the paper + , + she + put the pen between her teeth...

Frowning + , + she + scanned the columns quickly.

Setting her lips firmly + , + she + got up.

As an exercise, you might like to try rewriting the above example to cut out all 'ING' words. Decide on what is important for the reader to know, and restructure the piece completely.

© Marg McAlister

At the very least, do this for each of your own scenes. Run your word processor's 'search' function looking for 'ING' and see if this might be becoming a problem in your own writing.


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