What exactly do they mean when they say “show, don’t tell”?

As a copy editor who does a lot of developmental editing with indie authors, Show Don’t Tell is one of the things that I find myself mentioning a lot. Problem is, a catchphrase like that is so easy to say and so hard to explain in only a few words without using examples and re-writing material so the author can see the difference – and I find that authors can sometimes be extremely touchy about someone rewriting their pages for them (they are, after all, that author’s creation – and therefore offspring of a sort – and parents have been known to go to battle over something derogatory said about their child).

When authors ask me how to go about showing instead of telling this is the advice I give them:

Use more dialogue to get the material moving along if you want things to move quickly, rather than using short sentences and paragraphs that tell us what you want us to know.

Don’t be afraid of adding lots of volume to your manuscript by adding descriptions (and remember that descriptive passages should engage all our senses, not just the eyes and ears), but do maintain a balance.

Letting the reader figure out what you want them to know on their own engages the reader more fully – don’t be afraid to add information later on instead of loading it on the front end of the story. Making the reader wonder about what is going on increases tension and therefore is likely to make them want to read more to discover the answers. This does not mean adding lots and lots of flashbacks – it means providing back story in small doses as you write the material, rather than all at once in the first chapter.

Along with the notion of adding tension, self-reflection on personal issues adds tension and allows a writer to tell rather than show when writing in first person, specifically because of that aspect. If an author has a very difficult time with the ‘show, don’t tell’ dilemma, changing writing style to a first person point of view can alleviate that somewhat.

Anything that is passive is usually ‘tell,’ so avoid passive writing – more about that in another post, but basically anything that uses forms of the verb is (was, be, has been, etc.) is usually passive in nature rather than active. Writers who have written a lot of non-fiction tend to use passive voice frequently since that is what is properly used in reports, or textbooks. It is sometimes harder for a technical writer to write fiction than it is for someone who has never written anything at all to do so.

I also usually direct people to a couple of websites for examples and information, so here are a couple of those.

Grammar Girl is always great at giving good examples and clear explanations: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/show-dont-tell?page=all

This site is for grade school teachers, teaching writing to young students, but it is very clear and concise because of that: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/show-dont-tell-whiteboard-writing-lesson

I also like the Purdue OWL, but was disappointed on this subject – the links were not opening for me or were imbedded in general advice:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/sitemap/

And here are a couple of other links:

http://www.dailywritingtips.com/show-dont-tell/

http://www.sfwriter.com/ow04.htm

http://users.wirefire.com/tritt/tip1.html

In fact, if you search “show don’t tell” you get a lot of links – even a very nice explanation from Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don’t_tell

Perhaps it is not surprising to find that having references for the information I am providing is probably reassuring to authors. It may surprise you to know that I find a great deal of comfort in being able to point to a reference and say: “See, they said it too.” After all, knowing I am right about something doesn’t PROVE I am right about it, it is just my opinion in the end – but pointing at others whose work is respected and being able to say they said it too (or sometimes, they said it first) gives information more credence. Something for non-fiction writers to remember, even if what you are writing is a blog.

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6 Comments

Filed under copy editor, writing

6 responses to “What exactly do they mean when they say “show, don’t tell”?

  1. This is an awesome article. Very informative and a great read.

  2. Some of this advice is okay, if somewhat obvious. Maintaining a balance with the description is one most writers should be conscious of, but easier said than done. Good point about subtlety and not stuffing the reader with too much information early-on (truly the best reason why anyone would want to follow the whole “show, don’t tell” canard.) However, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive-voice. Then again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with following the inverse of most of your points either. It all comes down to how the writer is able to use his tools. Sometimes, a story is best written in 3rd person with very little “showing”. The problem with a lot of these “writing advice” posts I’ve been reading is that they either assume all writers are the same or they acknowledge that writers are different so instead push tips that are either common-sense or generic that apply to everyone but don’t exactly help because they’re already known.

    • Thanks for the note Andrew. Very good, valid points – a lot of what I write about could be considered common knowledge, especially for authors who are well into their writing careers. Getting as many writing tools into your toolbox is probably the smartest thing a writer could do, once you are past the basics. Knowing when and how to use those tools can be the difference between a decent writer and an outstanding author.
      I find myself working with a lot of authors who are still learning the basics, or who thought they knew them but didn’t apply them well in their writing for whatever reason – so part of the purpose of my blog is to put things into one spot that I can refer those authors to, using one link. The other purposes are both more and less obvious – I am advertising my services as a copy editor (obvious), but also I am feeding my own need to write while simultaneously blogging here rather than writing extremely long responses to someone else’s post. I will never be an author – I don’t have the drive it would take – but I do like to write.
      I have to note that I tend to sound like I am lecturing when I post – and sometimes when I talk. It is hard to break a decades-long habit of slipping into ‘teacher-mode’ without noticing. My kids (all adults at this point) quite frequently tell me to stop giving them science/writing/art/math/etc. lessons. Sigh…

  3. Reblogged this on Valerie Thomas and commented:
    This is a great article! Definitely worth a read!

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