One of my favorite Web sites for writing advice is the one at the Poynter Institute. Yes, it contains wisdom and training for journalists both green and experienced — but the lessons are often just about good writing. Especially when Dr. Peter Clark holds class online.
Across 2004 and 2005, Clark filled up a Writer’s Toolbox with more than 50 techniques, each about 750 words in length. Every one of them is followed by exercises you can apply to learn what he’d taught. Just at random, I found his entry on words that end in -ing. He says, “Let me offer reasons why ‘ing’ might weaken a verb.
“1. When I add an ‘ing,’ I add a syllable to the word. This does not happen, in most cases, when I add an ‘s’ or an ‘ed.’ Let’s take the verb “to trick.” First, I’ll add an ‘s,’ giving me ‘tricks’; next, I’ll try an ‘ed,’ giving me ‘tricked.’ Neither move alters the root effect of the verb. But ‘tricking,’ with its extra syllable, seems like a different word.
“2. Verbs with ‘ing’ begin to resemble each other. Walking and running and cycling and swimming are all good forms of exercise, but I prefer to point out that Kelly likes to walk, run, cycle, and swim.”
So while -ing is a natural part of English, and maybe a significant part of your true voice, it is gentle, not powerful. Clark has another column about some of the best advice he got on writing strong. He calls it, “Branch to the right.” It means get your subject and verb as close to the beginning of the sentence as you can, then follow them with your subordinate clauses. “Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early,” he says.
Clark made “Branch to the right” his first of more than 50 tools. The advice feels fundamental. There’s plenty of it in his complete Toolbox series, which he has adapted into a fine book.
We use -ing in a lively exercise in the Workshop, something to surprise us about the absence of a verb.