The Past Progressive Pit of Doom

It was snowing outside, but with nowhere to go I was staying indoors. I was writing. Poorly, it turns out because while I was looking for joy, I was finding only despair. I was using too many past progressives.

Douglas Phillips
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The Past Progressive Pit of Doom

It was snowing outside, but with nowhere to go I was staying indoors. I was writing. Poorly, it turns out because while I was looking for joy, I was finding only despair. I was using too many past progressives.

Do you see this in your writing? (Full disclosure, I have. Hopeful note, I’m getting better.)

It’s called the past progressive and it’s formed from the verb “to be” (am, are, was, were), plus a second verb, plus “-ing” slapped on the end for good measure. I was writing. I was finding. There’s also a present progressive and future progressive, but let’s focus on the past because that’s the verb tense most authors use. When I critique, past progressive is one of the most common mistakes I see. Sometimes it forms the first sentence of a chapter! Ugh.

Past progressive is a major turnoff for readers. Why? What’s wrong with progressive verbs? Nothing, grammatically speaking, but it’s weak writing and overused. Those “-ing” verbs get repetitive. All those “was” sentences get boring!

My personal theory: authors who write in past tense use the past progressive to make their narrative sound more like it’s happening now. If I write, John was searching for clues, we can see John rummaging through drawers and closets, whereas if I write, John searched for clues, he’s done! Didn’t find a thing. No drama there.

There are legitimate uses of the progressive tense, but only when it’s important to distinguish that an event is ongoing. Otherwise, try to reduce your use. If you do, you’ll discover two benefits: your vocabulary will expand, and you’ll create more interesting passages for readers. John scoured the room for clues. That’s better, right?

Are you making this common mistake? Let’s find out. First, some data. I examined several submissions to Critique Circle to compute what I call the PPP, or Past Progressive Percentage and found it ranges from 0.1% to 0.9%. That is, text like “was xxx-ing” occurred about 18 times in a 2000-word chapter (in the worst case).*

Want to check your own work? If you use Microsoft Word, View the Navigation Pane, and click the down arrow at the end of the search bar. Pick Advanced Find. Turn on the checkbox for Wild Cards, then type the following text in the search bar: was ??ing . This will find 2-letter progressive cases like “was doing” or “was being”. Note the count of how many you found. Then add one more ? and search again. You’ll find cases like “was saying” or “was crying”. Add that number to your sum. Then add another ? and search again for cases like “was looking” or “was opening”. You get the picture. By the time you get to 10 or 11 question marks, you’ll have found all the possible progressives in your work.** Then, just sum the occurrences and divide by the total number of words in your document (Word displays this number in the Status bar at the bottom). That’s your personal PPP. If you’re down around 0.1% or 0.2%, congratulate yourself. Well done! If you’re above 0.5%, you’ve got some work to do. Seek out better words. Eliminate a few cases of “was”. Anything above 1.0% spells trouble, but at least you know about it now. In another blog post, I’ll take on another “-ing” issue: the present participle.

* I didn’t bother to search for “were xxx-ing” or “wasn’t xxx-ing” because these are less common and don’t really change the purpose of the parameter.
** This search should work in a single step, using was [A-z]{2,11}ing .  Unfortunately, there’s a bug in Microsoft Word that causes this legitimate search expression to do the same thing as 11 question marks. I’ve notified Microsoft. So far, no answer.

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