I am in the midst of a major rewrite of my first fantasy novel, Tishta the Crystal Orb, after sending it off to an editor to review. The lessons I’m sharing today are: starting sentences with gerunds is not a good idea, in particular; and, gerunds can be tricky to get right, in general.
Once my editor, Anne Bean, pointed out this guideline, I went back through my book looking for them. I had been using gerund phrases frequently to change the cadence of sentences. There were A LOT of them.
I researched online to find explanations of why the rule exists, and opinions about how rigorously to follow it. I found a lot of opinions. In reading through them, I came to the conclusion that the seasoned authors were the ones urging its application.
After reading some of the examples, I found the reason for the rule. It’s not really an issue if a gerund is being used as the subject of the sentence, e.g., smoking causes cancer. It gets tricky when it is used in a gerund phrase.
Here’s an example from my own writing: Wiping his hand over his nose, it came away bloody, so he pinched it to try to stop the bleeding, worried he had left a trail of blood for his brother to follow.
Well, there are many things to fix in this sentence, but the point is, “wiping his had over his nose, it came away bloody” is awkward, at least. Is it the hand or the nose that came away bloody? It is especially unclear since the sentence continues with the nose being the subject of the next phrase.
To rewrite it, first, I’ll break it into two parts at the second comma.
For the first sentence, I’ll give two versions.
Here’s one: His hand came away bloody after he wiped it across his nose.
Or maybe: After wiping his nose, his hand came away bloody.
This second version actually points out an easy solution to many of my gerund phrase issues. Add a preposition to the beginning of the phrase. But, I still like the first one better.
For the second half of the original sentence, I’m going to get rid of the gerund phrase after the final comma. It’s an example of how gerunds are tricky, in general, to get right.
I like this much better: He pinched his nostrils together and hoped he had not left a trail of blood for his brother to follow.
So, the whole thing becomes: His hand came away bloody after he wiped it across his nose. He pinched his nostrils together and hoped he had not left a trail of blood for his brother to follow.
I’m starting to understand why this sounds a lot better to me. It is clearer, but also feels less passive. More direct.
I’d be interested in hearing from others about their successes and failures with gerunds.