The Craft: How to Hunt and Destroy Gerunds

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Today’s post is for the writers out there. I’m going to put forward one quick, easy method to sharpen your later drafts. It’s a method that’s simple, but also has a little technological A Gerundtrick to it.

First thing, I’m going to assume you hate gerunds. You know, those words in English that end in –ing. Like walking, talking, etc. One thing I’ve noticed and come to loathe is the use of gerunds in my writing…Dammit…Wait…That one didn’t count…

Anyway, if you don’t hate gerunds, you should. They tend to make sentences and action weaker. And they can interrupt the flow of your story too. Just look at these sentences:

Burke was walking down the street. As he came to the intersection, he was thinking about last night, wondering if Carol had really meant what she said.

or try this:

Burke walked down the street. He came to the intersection, thought about last night and wondered if Carol had really meant what she said.

The second version, is objectively better, just like Ayn Rand said. (I jest). But seriously, I think most people would agree that the second version is stronger and better. Why? The use of verbs in their simple form without –ing, make less passive, they are stronger and  more direct.

So, how do you find and kill these little bastards? It’s easy. You can do it one by one, of course. But the best thing to do is a keyword search in your word processor. Just search for “ing” and you’ll be surprised at how often they crop up. (I was shocked the first time I did this, in fact. I had no idea I wrote so many sentences with gerunds in them.) Once you search, all you have to do is reword the sentence, usually by using the infinitive (put “to” in front of the verb) or putting it in the simple past tense. You’ll be amazed at how a little freshening up like this will help your piece.

And what about adverbs?
Some have said that adverbs (words usually ending in “ly” in English) deserve the same treatment as gerunds: get rid of them. Elmore Leonard did not like to use adverbs to modify the verb “said.” That, at least, is a pretty good idea.

I can’t go there with people who think we should get rid of ALL adverbs, but they can be used as a crutch in situations where the reader should have been able to infer how something was being done from the action and the characters. Besides, if you’re getting rid of adverbs, getting rid of adjectives can’t be far behind. Then, you’re only left with nouns and verbs and a very gray world…but I digress.

So, how to get rid of those adverbs? You got it, do a keyword search for “ly” and, again, you’ll be surprised at what crops up. I don’t always ax the adverbs, but I usually do. It’s trickier fixing them because you have to find a way to subtly make it known how things are done without hitting your reader over the head with an adverb.

But isn’t that what the craft part of writing is all about?

See you next time,

Darius

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2 comments on “The Craft: How to Hunt and Destroy Gerunds

  1. This post came right on time for a round of edits. I’m with you on the adverbs. I plan on leaving some of them in the story because I feel they’re needed but the majority of them will be removed.

    • dariusjones says:

      Yep. As I go, I’m finding I use adverbs less and less. I think the situation, the characters and the verbs should carry much of that weight. So that the adverbs are usually (but not always) redundant. Glad you found the post useful.

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