Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Gerunds and Passive Voice - Two Rules You Must Break

Recently I had some crits done on my manuscript and was told not to use any gerunds.

(In case you don't know what a gerund is...it's those pesky little "ing" words. However not all "ing" words are gerunds. A simple test is this: let's say we're using the word swimming - if you can replace it with to swim, you know you've got a gerund.)

And - gulp - yes, I was guilty of doing it....a lot! I'm SOOOOO glad it was pointed out to me!

So why should we avoid these "ing" words? Well, because they make our writing passive. {I like swimming = passive. I like to swim = active.} :)

It really is good advice.

Avoid those gerunds when you can.

So, I've run passivity checks on my manuscripts before and even though I have those gerunds, my passivity score is at 1%. I kid you not. ONE PERCENT.

I think that's pretty good. Actually, I'd wager to day it's darned good. Because the rule of thumb is aim to be less than 5%.

Although I might have those "ing" words, that's not the only thing that makes our manuscript passive.

Nope.

The other big thing that invites passivity is where the subject is placed in a sentence.

So for example:

The cat walked in the rain.
(This is an active sentence with proper emphasis on the subject - the cat.)

A passive sentence would read like this:

In the rain, the cat walked.
(While the cat is doing the action he's not where you'd expect the grammatical subject to be. Instead, the rain is the grammatical subject.)

So, if you know me by now, you know that I'm all about breaking the rules!

Out of curiosity I decided to look for some "ing" words in one of my favorite published books.

Ex #1

"Sitting at Prim's knees, guarding her, is the world's ugliest cat."

Yep - that's the very first sentence of the third paragraph in THE HUNGER GAMES by the fabulous Suzanne Collins.

And sorry to say, but that sentence reeks of passivity and gerunds. Want to make it active? Easy. The world's ugliest cat sits at Prim's knees and guards her.

But, somehow, it just doesn't have the same flavor to me...

I figured this had to be a fluke. Susanne Collins is like a freaking gazillionaire genuis. So I opened the book to a random page to prove it was indeed just a fluke. An editorial oversight.

Guess what?

Yep - there were more "ing" words!

EX #2

"Just stepping on the stage makes my breathing rapid and shallow."

(Page 124, first paragraph - THE HUNGER GAMES)

EX #3

"Dangling up in the tree, with the sun warming me, a mouthful of mint, my bow and arrows at hand..."

(Page 230, first sentence, last paragraph - THE HUNGER GAMES)

So what's my point in all this?

Well, my dear ladies and gentlemen, my point is that rules are made to be broken!!

Should we start every paragraph, every sentence with an "ING" word? Should we always use passive voice? Should gerunds litter our manuscripts?

Definately not!!

But do we have to eliminate them entirely?

No way!

So, keep breaking those rules folks! (Just not ALL the time....)

:)

14 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I love this post! It's going onto this week's Cool Links Friday!

I'm noticing a few best selling authors do it. It doesn't come off as sloppy, passive writing. It comes off as a stylistic choice.

If only I had the confidence to use it. Maybe for my next novel. It might actually make sense for my mc's voice. Hmmm. ;)

Christine Danek said...

This is awesome. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I've been noticing this in some of my favorite books and think --wait...what? I was told not to do that.

Just don't litter. :)

Cruella Collett said...

The same thing goes for adverbs, I think. Many of us abuse them, and thus they are shunned, but in reality they can take a text to a higher level if properly used.

I try to think of these things as spice. A little spice is good in most dishes. For the right kind of dishes you can use more spice, and if you know what you're doing - say, you're a top chef - you can add quite a lot of spice without making the dish inedible. But there will always be a limit. No one likes a dish with too much spice!

So yes, rules are there to be broken, as long as we are aware of how and why we are doing it! (I am terrible, terrible with the gerunds [never heard of them before, but I certainly recognize the point] too)

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

I so love this post. I am rather found of an 'ing' word...or twelve. I agree with you, rules are made to be broken.
If te awesome Suzanne Collins can do it then I'm in. lol.

Meredith said...

Yay for breaking rules! This is such a helpful post.

Amie B said...

stina - i'm honored! i LOVE your cool links friday!

christine - you're welcome!! i'm glad you found it helpful.

cruella - yes, definately avoid "ly" words too! i have a friend that says to avoid "was" as well. and i think, say wha? can i use ANY words??

lindsay - together we will buck the system and someday will stand victorious!!

meredith - yay! i love breaking rules!

Colene said...

What a great post! Lots to think about too!

Someone told me once to avoid this whole list of words and -ing words as well. I told her I had seen many authors use them all.

I was told that, that might be true, but it takes strong writing to back up breaking rules. Now I'm terrified.

Thanks for this post, though, it clears up the specifics of how and when to use -ing words a lot better.

Tamika: said...

I'm a huge fan for pushing the limits, and breaking a few molds:)

Thanks for including the bestseller examples!

Terri Tiffany said...

Thanks for this. I have read that as long as we know the rules, we can break the. I sure do!

lbdiamond said...

I break the rules all the time, LOL!

Sara B. Larson said...

I love this post! And it's so true. Yes, follow the rules to a degree, but don't cripple yourself with them.

Nick said...

I think your second example should read:
"Prim sits on her cat because she has the world's ugliest knees."

Oh, and speaking of cats..

Dawn Simon said...

While I think it's important to learn the rules, I think we do sometimes need to break them. I agree.

Btw, I found you through the link at Stina's blog. :)

Annette Lyon said...

Whoever told you to use NO gerunds was WRONG, obviously!

Gerunds aren't always passive (although they can be), and they're mostly to be avoided when paired with a helping verb (so "was running" instead of "ran").

Gerunds, used well, can all a lot of flavor. USED WELL is the key1