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Don’t of the day: The overuse of Participles

Don’t of the day: The overuse of Participles

The overuse of participles is a plague in contemporary writing. Sure, participles are good here and there, but some writers like to spam them like Xs and Os on a get-well card to their grandmother. Every day the situation seems to get worse, especially when it comes to indie and small press authors. Sometimes I open a sample of a book and there are participles everywhere, swarming like flies on a corpse. Shit, I just used one! I better make sure it doesn’t multiply. The problem is that participles are super easy to use, and if you’re lazy, or lacking in versatility when it comes to prose composition, you might end up relying on them way too much. Here are some concrete examples of when participles can be given the flick:

  • Cracking my knuckles, I thought about what to play next / I cracked my knuckles and thought about what to play next

  • He was walking, I was running / he walked, I ran

  • He walked over to the table, carrying the tray of drinks / He carried the tray of drinks to the table

  • The hag was cackling, carving off his ear / The hag cackled and carved off his ear

  • We were eating cheese and drinking wine on the patio / we ate cheese and drank wine on the patio

So there you have it, some examples of sentences that sound way nicer without participles. Of course, as mentioned earlier, there are plenty of examples in which you may need to use a participle, such as when referring to drawn out or repetitive actions, such as “I’m dying inside from all these fucking participles everywhere, don’t people know any other ways to write a fucking sentence?!”

One of my absolute pet hates is a specific type of construction which throws a participle into a second clause with the effect of creating a horrible start-stop or forward-back momentum. Here is an example: “they danced to the music, flirting up a storm.” The sentence starts okay, but then the comma shows up, followed by the participle, and everything grinds to a halt and the momentum seems to go backward. Does this construction seem familiar? Probably because some writers use it constantly, with the result that their prose transforms into a lurching nightmare - start-stall, start-stall, start-stall, like a train struggling to leave the station. And yet, the means of eliminating this awful construction is so easy. A simple change would carry that forward momentum all the way to the end of the sentence and beyond: “they danced to the music and flirted up a storm.” Bam, so much better, no jolted rhythm, no ruined momentum, just clean, clear, forward-moving prose that doesn’t give you a headache.

Now by this point in the article you might be experiencing a sinking feeling and thinking Oh shit, I use those types of constructions all the time! If that’s the case, you’re not alone. I used to overuse participles too, as can unfortunately be seen in my earlier publications. But what’s past is past, and one of the joys of writing is the scope it offers for endless refinement. So if you’ve just come to the realisation that you’ve been dropping participles like acid tabs at a Jodorowsky film festival, don’t despair. You can clean up your act. Once you become more mindful of the sort of constructions to avoid, you can start to use them less, and even if a few lame sentences slip through, you can always catch them in editing.

Now, just to prove I don’t totally hate participles, here’s a great sentence using them:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world - Yeats

Further reading:

If you want to have your mind blown, attend a masterclass on avoiding participles by checking out Joe R. Lansdale’s Savage Season, where participles are pretty much an endangered species, even in long, drag-out fight scenes with lots of complex action. Soak up his beautiful prose and learn from a master.

If you want more detailed and learned advice on avoiding participles, in addition to other priceless writing and editing tips, check out Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, my personal favourite book on writing and editing.


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