A Simple Fix: -ing Verbs

I love Dr. Seuss, but there's one of his books I always edit as I read. Bartholomew and the Oobleck just has an overabundance of passive -ing verbs. Example:

       With an angry roar, the oobleck was suddenly hitting the palace harder. It was battering and spattering against the walls as big as greenish buckets full of gooey asparagus soup!
       Like a sinking sailboat, the whole palace was springing leaks. The oobleck was ripping the windows right off their hinges.
       It was dripping through the ceilings. It was rolling down the chimneys. It was coming in everywhere ... even through the keyholes!

There's a lot of good stuff here. Strong verbs. Apt comparisons. Colorful imagery. But the past progressive (which is what we call -ing verbs used this way) kills me every time.

It seems accurate. I mean, the oobleck didn't hit the palace just once. It was hitting it. Continuously. But this construction is passive, and in fiction it slows things down. Compare the above passage with this one.

       With an angry roar, the oobleck suddenly hit the palace harder. It battered and spattered against the walls as big as greenish buckets full of gooey asparagus soup!
       Like a sinking sailboat, the whole palace sprung leaks. The oobleck ripped the windows right off their hinges.
       It dripped through the ceilings. It rolled down the chimneys. It came in everywhere ... even through the keyholes!

I don't know about you, but the new passage feels a lot more tense to me. And at no point am I confused as to whether the oobleck hit or was hitting. The scene it paints is perfectly clear.

Fortunately this is an easy, if somewhat tedious, fix. Search for "ing", and examine each one to see if it can be removed. (Of course you'll find a lot of gerunds too--verbs turned into nouns via -ing--which is what makes it so tedious).

Or you can do it the lazy way, like me. Learn the rule, and hope you catch them on your own read through. With practice, you can actually catch a lot, though probably not all of them. It is called the lazy way for a reason, after all.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

When I was training (ack!) myself out of passive verbs, I would use Word's highlight function to flag those passive verbs like angry bees in my MS. It was awful, but effective.

Now I'm lazy too. :)

Nancy Thompson said...

I had no idea! Guess I have a lot of fix-ING to do!

Sun Singer said...

I'm not concerned about an occasional ING, for it does vary the presentation. What bothers me is falling into the habit of using it to excess. It's amazing what one can find in his/her manuscripts once they start searching for too much ING or too much of anything else.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Being a writer is a curse, sometimes. We can't even read Dr. Seuss anymore without editing! :)


K. Greaney Martin said...

Great post! I usually catch myself as I write because the sentence sounds clunky and I think "why does this sound weird?" But that's a good idea to search for ING because it's easy to forget while writing in a frenzy.

Adam Heine said...

@Susan: Laziness, FTW!

@Nancy: It's comments like yours that make blogging worth it. Glad I could help!

@Sun: I agree we shouldn't fall into the trap of rules. They're all guidelines, and this is another one. The occasional ING never hurt anybody.

Adam Heine said...

@Amy: Ha! Totally true. I'm just glad my kids can't read along yet so they don't "correct" me.

@Keriann: I think you should forget it while in a writing frenzy. Don't slow down for pesky things like grammar :-)

Nick said...

Seuss is meant to be read out-loud and to ryme. But seriously, you'da thunk he could avoid such passivity!

Adam Heine said...

In it's defense, Nick, it's one of the older Seuss stories.

K. Marie Criddle said...

Yes, yes. THIS. I was needing to be reading and to be remembering this rule. Back to the revisions, Robin!

Adam Heine said...

I is being so glad to be helping for you. Also your comments are to making me laugh much times.

(Did I take it too far?)