Thursday, June 18, 2009


notes on craft

It's the end of the summer term. Which seems odd. Seven weeks and it's practically over. For me, all that remains is a term paper.

I've located a shareware concordance program (not that the normal person ever has need of one, but it's here if you're interested) and I'm analyzing my own writing. Namely I'm looking for features that appear in "literary" attempts at writing that may not appear in my attempts at "popular" writing and vice versa.

I shocked quite a few people in my class (including my literature/linguistics professor) by stating that my writing instruction in the MFA had firmly suggested that literary writers today should avoid verb tenses ending in -ing.

I do not mean gerunds, or nouns that end in -ing such as her singing was awful. [Just learned what that part of speech was called!]

For a piece that is written in the past tense, these verb forms often take the shape of participial phrases. I have been instructed that using the simple past is essentially stronger, more direct, less "common" and, in general, preferred. I've had this verbalized to me, but if anyone's seen it in print I would love to know where so that I could read/cite something for my paper.

To take a cliche phrase that fits the bills:

They dragged her away kicking and screaming.

Would be liter-ified by changing it to

She kicked and screamed as they took her away.


She kicked. She screamed. But still they dragged her away.

You get the idea.

Of course, all stylistic advice is arbitrary, but this was something I have heard ONLY within the world of literary fiction and that all important institutional MFA stamp of approval. Other places note caution of the participial phrase because it often creates confusion:

Undressing, Larry stepped into the shower.

Truth is that this sentence is more the work of a lazy writer -- or a lazy showerer who wants to wash their clothes and skin simultaneously -- but in a more complicated sentence the logic confusion can sneak up on you. So "doing away with it" would seem only practical. But genre writing doesn't say you must. In fact, the Science Fiction Writers of America in their online tips and essays offer ways to avoid undressing in the shower and other confusions by putting the sentence into passive voice. I shit you not. If we're dealing with two evils here, then passive voice is definitely the greater of the two.

So losing the participial phrase loses the confusion of action, the confusion of subjects that follow the phrase (see SFWA article) and the frequent "fix" of passive voice. It also allows the writer to do more artistic things with the sentence and to avoid tired, cliche phrasings. See how "kicking and screaming" changed in the above example? No, it wasn't a genius-level rewrite, but it's much nicer than the commonplace phrasing. And if there is one thing literary writing does not want it is to appear commonplace or use any of the crutches popular writers and average speakers can get away with.

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