wednesday in the weeds

I got some nice feedback on last week’s secret weapon post. I had worried it might be too “insider” so I’m glad people are interested in more in-depth writing advice. I’m going to try to make this a regular feature, and I’m naming it after an expression my sister, a lawyer, uses when she’s explaining a case or law and fears she’s getting too technical. So, onto the first “Wednesday In the Weeds.”

A few months ago, I was taking a fiction writing class, and hanging out on the message boards with some other students. One posed a question about starting a sentence with an “ing” verb, which she said she did often to vary her sentences. But she’d recently read it was the mark of an amateur writer. For example:

Staring down at her chipped black nail polish, Hannah wondered how she’d gotten into this mess.

I wouldn’t necessarily deem this wrong, but I do tend to agree that less-seasoned writers rely on it too much, especially in fiction. I have three problems with this sentence structure.

1. You don’t immediately know who’s doing the action — who the subject is. In this example, you read eight words before you know. That could be confusing.

2. It relies on the passive form of a verb — she is staring, instead of she stares. I’m not as strict about active voice as other editors, but it’s always a good general rule to look at your sentences through this lens and see where you can easily delete that “to be” verb and tighten up the thought. A sentence is stronger if it begins with a strong action.

3. More intuitively, sentences like this read like you’re backing into the action. If the most important part of the sentence is “Hannah wondered how she’d gotten into this mess,” why aren’t you leading with that? If the staring or the chipped-nail detail are crucial, then rewrite the sentence so it’s less tentative. You don’t want readers to feel like you’re wasting their time with details that don’t matter. I think the detail does matter here, but the way it’s written implies otherwise.

A quick fix for this sentence would be:

Hannah stared down at her chipped black nail polish, wondering how she’d gotten into this mess.

Or maybe even better:

Hannah stared down at her chipped black nail polish. “How in the hell did I get myself into this?” she wondered.

There’s a tangential reason I think it’s better to use this structure with caution, too. Because the subject is implied, it’s very easy to make a mistake in subject-verb agreement. The example above is correct, but I often see things like, “Running down the hall, her breathing was labored.” Her breathing wasn’t running down the hall, she was. (This is what’s known as a misplaced or dangling modifier.)

I’m not saying don’t ever use this construction. If I went through my novel-in-progress  — which I adapted this sentence from — I’m sure I’d see examples of it. But just keep an eye out for overuse, and definitely don’t do it consciously just to vary your sentence structure. The truth is readers respond to a natural writing voice, and we don’t naturally vary our sentences that much in conversation. And there are better ways to freshen up your writing. But I’ll save that for another Wednesday!

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