Writing Mini-Lessons: Beware the Participle

A participle is a verb in disguise. It’s actually a nonfinite verb that functions as an adjective. Participles make action indirect, even vague. Used badly, they can make the actors in a poem—the people, the I—disappear. You can usually spot participles by their endings, -ing or -ed, and where they come in a line: at the beginning and often as a substitute for a noun or pronoun, especially I.

Beginning writers often use participles as a means of avoiding nouns and pronouns, in essence, effectively keeping themselves out of the writing. Instead of writing the line, "I danced in the rain and felt each drop as a tender caress," a beginning writer using participles might word the sentence as a phrase, "Dancing in the rain and feeling each drop as a tender caress," with no I in sight. The problem with participles is that without an actor, a character, there’s no one for the reader to see or become in the piece. The virtual lack of a human presence weakens the piece and makes it nearly impossible for the reader to become immersed in the piece.

As a writer, it is your job to make your lines active wherever you can, peopled with nouns and pronouns, especially I.