February 20, 2018

Writing Craft Master Lists: Filling in the Blanks—Participle Phrases

Pen poised to write on a blank page with text: Filling in the Blanks of Our Writing Knowledge

Over the past two weeks, I shared my series of huge mega-posts listing every writing craft skill I could think of for story development, line editing, and copy editing.

My goal is to give us a list we can use for learning:

Important stuff, right? *smile* But this project isn’t quite over yet.

Soon, I’ll offer those lists as downloadable checklists for everyone so we can easily keep track of our progress in learning skills. Before I take that step, however, I want to make sure these lists are as complete as possible.

What Skills Are Missing?

To make these lists as “ultimate” and “master” as possible, I need your help. Over the next few days, if you get a chance, please take a few minutes to think about:

  • What skills have you learned?
  • What skills have you struggled with?
  • What skills are you an expert at?

What writing skills do we need to know? Click To TweetAre any of those skills missing from my lists? If so, let me know so we can create this resource together. *smile*

Also, we can think about the feedback we’ve received (whether from beta readers, critique groups, or editors, etc.)

  • What kind of comments do we get in feedback?
  • Is that type of feedback reflected in one of the lists?

As I said in the posts, I’m just one brain, and everyone needs feedback. So I’d appreciate any suggestions you have on what else should be added to the lists. The more eyes looking for skills to add, the better. *grin*

What Skills Need More Explanation?

In each list, I also linked some skills to posts I have here for more information. However, not every skill listed is linked. (Even with my 750+ posts here, I haven’t written about every writing skill. *smile*)

So the other part of what we can do to make these lists more helpful for everyone is to add more links:

  • Do you know of a great, go-to reference post for any of the skills listed?
  • Do you need more explanation for any of the skills?

What writing skills confuse you? Click To TweetI’m happy to link to other resources, and I’m always on the lookout for ideas for future posts, so let me know if you have suggestions or questions.

The more links we can add to skills that require more explanation, the more useful these lists will be for everyone. So I’d appreciate any suggestions or requests you have for skills that need more clarity.

Example: Watching Out for Particle Phrases

One of the skills on the Copy Editing Master List was originally listed as:

If Leading Participle Phrases Can Be a Problem…

The link included for that skill leads to a post that touches on the problems we can encounter with leading present participle phrases (PPPs), which some writers use to try to vary the start of their sentences.

  • Standard Sentence Structure: Subject(s)-verb(s)-object(s). (George ran up the stairs and shouted for help.)
  • Leading PPP Sentence Structure: Verb-ing an object, subject-verb-object. (Running up the stairs, George shouted for help.)

However, as I said in the post linked above, leading PPPs bury the subject of the sentence; they don’t change it. (“George” is the subject either way.)

In addition, leading PPPs—especially when used in an attempt to vary sentence structure—are easy to overuse, can confuse readers, cause dangling modifiers, and create non-simultaneous action situations. Not good.

…What about Trailing Participle Phrases?

That list of problems prompted June Randolph to ask about trailing participle phrases in the comments:

“What about trailing PPPS’s? … Recently I have been adding trailing PPS’s to avoid too many “and’s”. Maybe there is some other principle to keep in mind.”

Like the sense that we should vary our sentence beginnings, we understandably want to vary our sentence structure, such as to avoid using too many compound verbs in our sentences with “and”s everywhere we look. But as with leading PPPs, it can be easy to misuse trailing PPPs too.

Common Errors with Trailing Participle Phrases

Switching up the example above, a trailing present participle phrase would be:

George ran up the stairs, shouting for help.

Trailing PPPs aren’t thought of as bad as leading PPPs, mostly because they’re not burying the subject of the sentence. That means they’re easier to parse, less clunky, etc.

Some of the common mistakes we find with leading PPPs tend to happen less often with trailing PPPs as well. However, there are still a few things to be careful of…

“Squinting” Modifiers in Trailing PPPs:

In leading PPPs, we can end up with dangling modifiers. Dangling modifiers are when a modifier doesn’t refer to anything in the sentence.

Changing the channel, the TV blared more loudly.

Unless the TV changed its own channel, we’re missing the subject of the sentence doing the action. (Changing the channel, she…)

With trailing PPPs, we already know our main action verb by the time we get to the PPP verb, so we’re less likely to make the dangling mistake. Instead, we’re more likely to create unclear or squinting modifiers, where we’re not sure which noun in the sentence is being modified (thus we “squint” in confusion).

He couldn’t take his eyes off her body, gazing obsessively.

What’s doing the obsessive gazing? Him, his eyes, or her body?

Usually, we’d want the modifier to be as close to the noun we’re modifying to avoid the potential for confusion. Or if that makes for a clunky sentence, we’d want to reword: He gazed obsessively at her, unable to take his eyes off her body.

(And yes, these are craptastic examples because I’m struggling to come up with “good” examples of bad writing. *snicker*)

Non-Simultaneous Action:

No matter what kind of PPP we’re using, we need to watch for impossible simultaneous actions.

She ran up the stairs, tying her shoes.

We can’t tie our shoes as we’re running up stairs or we’ll trip. (At least I know I would trip… *grin*)

Do you know what to watch out for with participle phrases? Click To TweetReaders will experience a mental speed bump if they try to picture this in their minds. So it’s better to reword: She tied her shoes and ran up the stairs.

(There’s some debate of whether an “and then” would be better in a compound-verb sentence like that, just to ensure readers know those actions happen consecutively rather than simultaneously. But “and”s don’t grammatically require events to happen simultaneously (the way PPPs do), and most readers will picture events happening in the order they read them, so just an “and” should be sufficient unless adding a “then” sounds better.)

“Being” Verbs in Trailing PPPs:

Another important aspect of simultaneous action is that both the main verb and the verb in the trailing PPP are action verbs.

What that means is that we wouldn’t want to use a verb about a state of being in the trailing PPP because that’s an ongoing situation and not limited to just when the main action of the sentence is going on.

She locked the door, knowing she’d never be able to lock out her fear.

That PPP verb—knowing—is a “being” verb. She’s not going to stop knowing her fear exists when the action of locking is done, so they’re not quite a good match for simultaneous action.

(That said, this is very nitpicky line/copy editing stuff, and the vast majority of readers wouldn’t notice. This is a rule about the proper mechanics of sentence structure, not necessarily what will “feel” to readers like weak writing. In my editor hat, I’d leave the above example because the echo of “lock” works for me on a voice level. *smile*)

Burying the Stronger Action in the PPP:

We want the main clause of our sentence to be as strong as possible, as that’s the source of our story’s narrative drive and overall sense of strong writing. So assuming both the main verb and the trailing PPP verb are action verbs (not “being” verbs), we wouldn’t want the main verb to be boring or weak compared to the PPP verb.

She entered her apartment, slamming the door behind her.

The PPP verb—slamming—is obviously stronger and has more of a visual “showing” component than entering. So we’d want to try to reword the sentence to avoid burying that stronger verb.

Maybe we’d use a compound-verb structure instead (She entered…and slammed…). Maybe we’d try to come up with a stronger initial verb, separate those ideas into different sentences, or combine them with previous/following sentences differently. Or maybe we’d use a different complex sentence structure, etc.

Finding the Balance to Avoid Repetitive Elements

As June worried, there is such a thing as too many “and” sentences in row, just as there’s such a thing as too many leading PPPs, but we can also go overboard in using trailing PPPs as a fix. So we want to learn as many craft skills as we can to expand our writing toolbox.

The more skills we have in our toolbox, the more variety we’ll be able to inject into our writing. As a bonus, those skills will help us develop the depth of our voice rather than just using words as a utility to express ourselves.

Reading our work aloud can help us hear where the rhythm of our sentences feels repetitive. It’s all about balance and finding the best way to express our thoughts and stay true to our voice. *smile*

Can you think of any skills I’ve missed for the Master Lists? Do you have suggestions for resources to link to for any of the skills? Do you have questions or need more explanation for any of the skills? Do the examples here help you understand PPPs? Were you familiar with these issues to watch out for with PPPs?

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What do you think?

12 Comments on "Writing Craft Master Lists: Filling in the Blanks—Participle Phrases"

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Thank you. I like those hints. They make sense.


I have been going through my most recent WIP — and removing trailing PPPs. Yes, I did several wrong. Others were unnecessary or could be worded better as simple past tense. I appreciate the advice.

I don’t know if the following would be something you would like to comment on: You had a guest post on hooks. I read that and bought the author’s book on hooks. But, I am still feeling my way on how to create hooks. I read some of Lindsay Buroker’s books the last few days, and I can see how she ends each chapter with a question or something leading to the next chapter. OK. I think I can do that in the book I am working on now. I also see that shorter chapters would let me place more of these around. (I write the story and then break it up into chapters. I was putting them at logical endings of scenes or parts of the story. But, from what I read, I should try to put in something leading to the next scene).–Opening hooks remain a problem for me. Most of the examples I have read are very much “telling.” Great for ads or other purposes, but not for a beginning of a book or subsequent chapters in my style. You pointed out that the opening of the book should ground the reader in a place even if only a floor, or a roof. And, I liked where you said to give a small problem at first. (Your example of people not knowing how to react if someone is bawling their eyes out vs dropping some papers that the wind is whipping around) And only slip in phrases… Read more »

Sorry I rambled so much on this comment. I am putting in hooks leading to the next chapter in my WIP starting this morning. It is easier than I feared. Examples: You are walking down a dangerous jungle path. You hear a loud thump behind you. NEXT CHAPTER. (OK, that one is obvious.) Talking about the next thing to do. NEXT CHAPTER. Worrying about something NEXT CHAPTER. I still don’t have as clear an idea how to start each chapter. In the first example, you whirl and see what has dropped down on the path behind you.(Again, obvious) Answering what has been raised in the lead up is a guide. At least this is a start on putting in hooks that make for page turners. I’m sure there is more I can learn.


Through the serendipity of links, I found one of Jami’s articles that is perfect for what I was looking for. It is titled Cliffhangers so it didn’t come up in my search for hooks.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks! I agree that joining two actions or intents in one sentence can be confusing or can just read poorly.
As an example I have just read a book on work and interview skills, in which the author suggests we write an application letter like: “Dynamic and motivated, I am looking forward to joining a larger team. Coming from an industry background, I always perform to my utmost.” (My words, not the exact originals.) My own view is that you might get away with one of these sentences but not two in a row.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Er, Jami, you do realise that this newsletter is tagged Jami is insane?


[…] errors with leading participle phrases and trailing participle phrases, such as overuse, impossible simultaneous action, […]

Holland C. Kirbo

Great article, Jami! I enjoyed the read. Trailing PPPs can be useful when done well. But they can make a reader’s mind come to a screeching halt when done poorly. Certainly not the experience any of us want for our readers.


[…] as I’m always looking for post ideas, and I want these lists to be as helpful as possible. In part one of this attempt to “fill in the blanks,” I used a question from June Randolph as an opportunity to explain participle phrases, a […]


[…] part one, I used a question from June Randolph as an opportunity to explain participle phrases, a skill on the Copy Editing Master […]

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