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Writer’s Insight: Using Gerunds Effectively in Writing

Writer’s Insight: Using Gerunds Effectively in Writing

One of the things I’ve heard is that using gerunds is indicative of poor writing. Writers, it’s argued, should avoid using this verb form. So, I decided to test this out. Let’s look at a passage from Bad Spirits.

The Original

Timmo snorted; amusement played over his features. “You aren’t much of an improvement, doll,” he drawled, leaning back on the mattress. “But I’ll gladly take up the offer.”

With that, he rolled over, twisting the remaining sheets about himself. Ilya gritted his teeth, then went back to inspecting the pistol. He crouched by the door, taking aim. Eight months ago, this would have been as natural as taking a breath. The callous from holding the gun had started to fade; new callouses had appeared, callouses from holding instruments of life-giving, of growth, of fertility and creativity. He was almost disgusted by the fact he was holding a weapon again, holding the power of death in his hands once more. He ran away from all of that because he didn’t want to kill anyone else, even if they were trying to kill him. He wanted to wash his hands of the blood and just live, simple and clean for once in his goddamned life. Apparently, though, that was too much to ask – Timmo showing up at his door was proof of that. His past was going to haunt him until it finally interred him six feet deep in the earth. He crinkled his nose at the thought.

He sighed heavily, then sat down on the floor, dropping the gun. Timmo was likely right; his tails wouldn’t move until the fog lifted a little, at least. It was nearly impossible to get a shot off in conditions like this; the chances that you might shoot someone on your side were too high.

They wouldn’t move until Timmo gave them the signal, and Timmo would give them the signal when the fog lifted a little bit.

He shuddered; the cold was creeping in along with the wet. He glanced at the scattered contents of the cupboard. He should have moved to put them away. They were getting wet, sitting out on the floor, and in a little while, they’d be useless to him. Still, he couldn’t bear to drag himself away from the door long enough to put them back in order; he couldn’t stand to turn his back on the door for even one fraction of a second – that was how imminent death seemed. He checked the gun again, then glanced about uselessly.

He glanced back at Timmo, then sighed again.

Today was going to be a long day. He sat there for a moment more, then glanced at Timmo once again.

The blond was sitting up now, just a bit. He crooked a finger at him. His eyes were nothing but slits, but it still felt like his gaze was burning a hole straight through Ilya, even as he tried to ignore him.

He should have known better. There was no ignoring Timmo. He slunk to the side of the bed, stopping just short of the mattress. Timmo’s hands landed on his shoulders. “You should rest too,” he murmured, and that softness was back in his eyes.

I’ve highlighted the gerunds in red. You can see that most of them end in “-ing” and they indicate an ongoing action, one performed concurrently with the narration, which hasn’t yet ended.

What happens when we take the gerunds out?

Gerunds Removed

Timmo snorted; amusement played over his features. “You aren’t much of an improvement, doll,” he drawled as he leaned back on the mattress. “But I’ll gladly take up the offer.”

With that, he rolled over, twisting the remaining sheets about himself. Ilya gritted his teeth, then inspected the pistol. He crouched by the door, took aim. Eight months ago, this would have been as natural as breathing. The callous from holding the gun had started to fade; new callouses had appeared, callouses from handling instruments of life-giving, of growth, of fertility and creativity. He was almost disgusted by the fact he had to hold a weapon again, holding the power of death in his hands once more. He ran away from all of that because he didn’t want to kill anyone else, even if they wanted to kill him. He wanted to wash his hands of the blood and just live, simple and clean for once in his goddamned life. Apparently, though, that was too much to ask – Timmo showing up at his door was proof of that. His past would haunt him until it finally interred him six feet deep in the earth. He crinkled his nose at the thought.

He sighed heavily, then sat down on the floor, dropping the gun. Timmo was likely right; his tails wouldn’t move until the fog lifted a little, at least. It was nearly impossible to get a shot off in conditions like this; the chances that you might shoot someone on your side were too high.

They wouldn’t move until Timmo gave them the signal, and Timmo would give them the signal when the fog lifted a little bit.

He shuddered; the cold crept in along with the wet. He glanced at the scattered contents of the cupboard. He should have moved to put them away. They were getting wet, sitting out on the floor, and in a little while, they’d be useless to him. Still, he couldn’t bear to drag himself away from the door long enough to put them back in order; he couldn’t stand to turn his back on the door for even one fraction of a second – that was how imminent death seemed. He checked the gun again, then glanced about uselessly.

He glanced back at Timmo, then sighed again.

Today would be a long day. He sat there for a moment more, then glanced at Timmo once again.

The blond had sat up now, just a bit. He crooked a finger at him. His eyes were nothing but slits, but his gaze still burned a hole straight through Ilya, even as he tried to ignore him.

He should have known better. He couldn't ignore Timmo. He slunk to the side of the bed, stopping just short of the mattress. Timmo’s hands landed on his shoulders. “You should rest too,” he murmured, and that softness was back in his eyes.

Mark Up

The changes appear in red. The first thing you’ll notice is that I couldn’t get rid of all of the gerunds–not easily, at least. Some of them were easier to excise than others.  Here’s a marked-up version of the text, showing my commentary on the changes.

Commentary on use of gerunds in text.

I’m not normally the chatty editor. (Download a PDF version here.)

The Rationale for Changes

All right, so what does this demonstrate? In some cases, the advice is certainly sound: We can see in phrases such as “went back to inspecting the gun,” the use of the gerund definitely made me use more words than I had to. I can say “he inspected the gun,” which is clearer and more concise; the verb phrase is one word versus three. Using the gerund in this case made my writing more verbose, which isn’t usually a good thing.

But we’ll also notice there are other places in the text where I couldn’t replace a gerund easily or doing so made the text awkward. Look at the phrases “It was going to be a long day” and “There was no ignoring Timmo.” These are both idiomatic expressions, which means although I can reword them to eliminate the gerunds, doing so sounds a little funny. Writing “Today would be a long day” eliminates the gerund, but it also eliminates the idiomatic phrase, and so it loses its impact. (Of course, idioms and the like have to be watched, because they can be trite.)

What about the first line, where I changed “he drawled, leaning back on the mattress” to “he drawled as he leaned back on the mattress”? I actually needed more words to eliminate the gerund here. Nonetheless, the point can be taken that both constructions are grammatically sound; neither is more “right” than the other. The question is more of how often do I use subordinate clause constructions featuring a gerund. The answer is quite often; it’s something of a nervous tic in my writing. Instead, I can vary the constructions to limit the use of gerunds in my writing. I may not be able to excise them entirely, but I can use constructions such as “as Character did x” to create more variety in my sentences. I can even simply create a new sentence.

A Word of Caution

Of course, you’ll also notice there’s a couple of cases where I seem to have left gerunds. Not every word ending in “-ing” is a gerund; words like “beginnings” and “endings” look like gerunds, but they’re actually functioning as nouns. Before you attempt to remove a word you think is a gerund, check what work it’s doing in your sentence. Is it really functioning as a verb? If it’s not, you might need to leave well enough alone.


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