What It Means to Show Rather Than Tell in Writing (and How to Do It)

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If writing advice had a Top 10 Hits list, “show, don’t tell” likely would rank #1 pretty dang easily. We’ve heard it a million times, we know we ought to do it, but what the bleeping hades does it MEAN?

From a technical standpoint, showing rather than telling in writing basically means you do anything and everything not to just lay out the facts. Your goal is to write something that will allow the reader to infer what is taking place or true, rather than to offer blunt narration.

Let’s look at some examples.

Example #1:

Bad: She kissed him squarely on the lips. But she was still angry. 

Good: Her lips found that beautiful meaty point of his, feeling the awkward moist warmth of his own. Her hands, however, stayed clenched. How could he possibly expect forgiveness after what he had done?

How do I know the kiss was square? Because the kiss is on the “meaty point”. I know how the kiss feels now, too. I never say I’m angry, yet clenched fists signal that all is not well.

Example #2:

Bad: Working with Janet taught me how to be brave.

Good: As I watched Janet take on impossible projects with warm coffee cup in hand, do cold call after cold call without missing a beat and laugh with investors as if millions of dollars weren’t on the line, my toes curled a little more with excitement every day. I stood taller. I talked more. And suddenly I wasn’t afraid.

Here, it’s not the activities Janet does that are particularly important. It’s the casual, calm and relaxed manner in which she does them. You get a physical response from the individual that confirms the transformation happening internally.

Now, one obvious difference between the bad and good points is that the bad points are much more succinct. This brevity has its place, and inference doesn’t have to take paragraphs, as Ernest Hemingway proves. But generally, showing means adding details so that the reader gets a mental picture, imagery around the point. So the basic rule is, paint a clear picture, but don’t make so many brush strokes that your arm gets tired.

Showing rather than telling through artful inference means that you have to pay close attention to all the learned interpersonal, social and cultural cues that run rampant, as well as your senses and feelings. You have to ask yourself what particular tones and physical gestures mean and understand that even little things–like pulling out a particular brand of mascara, for example–can have significance. And it’s important to truly know your audience well when you write, because the same cue might mean different things to different groups, which can influence how well they understand and connect to your message. Ideally, try to be as inclusive as you can, since that means more people will get the story. At the very least, consider the possible interpretations and take care to craft the “show” in a way that likely will give the least offense.

If you want to try your hand at showing rather than telling, start by rejecting your first, default option. Ask yourself

  • How can I describe the action rather than simply leaning on specific verbs?
  • What do I want the reader to know about the characters or plot from what I’m describing?
  • What biases are at the heart of the description, if any? Under what circumstances would those biases fall apart?

It’s also important to keep in mind that blunt, tell-it-like-it-is communication still works great for your outline. Summarize with no flash first and then go back to flesh out your work.

Showing rather than telling is the hallmark of good storytelling, whether you’re writing a novel or aiming to give an inspiring speech to this year’s graduates. If you want what you have to say to stand out, don’t let the technique go to waste.

10 Ways to Get New Writing Ideas

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If you’re mysteriously blessed with a mind that produces new writing ideas like new bunnies in a burrow, life probably is pretty good. If you’re like most authors, though, you likely need to find a little inspiration from time to time. That inspiration can come from dozens of places, including:

  • Magazine or website articles: What did the original author miss or not consider? How can you put your own spin on the title to make it fresh?
  • Social media posts: What’s your stance on what others said? Why? How can you present both sides of the argument to inform others? What backstory can you imagine that might have led to the post?
  • Everyday objects: What other uses could your items have in another time or world? This doesn’t have to change the basics of the item–the frying pans used as weapons in Tangled, for example, stayed frying pans. But what if they were alive or had dramatically different features? What would society look like without them, or what alternatives would we potentially create and why? Combining unlikely pairs also has good potential.
  • History: Can you tell an untold story no one has uncovered? What about taking a specific event or conflict and creating characters to contribute to it? (e.g., Beloved) How about warping elements of time and events that have happened? (For example, Outlander.) Don’t forget to use your own experience and memories here, too. These can make great memoirs, blogs and editorials. But you also can let yourself travel what-if paths, too, such as imagining what would have happened if you’d really kissed What’s-His-Face behind the bleachers.
  • Dreams: It’s OK if the dream doesn’t have a true plot and appears more like a blip of a scene to you. Think about the overall concept, the feeling the dream left you with. Then try to shape text around that.
  • Eavesdropping: No, I’m not telling you to invest in spy gear. You’re not trying to invade privacy here. Just take the conversation and flesh it out with backstory or explanations. For instance, if someone’s yapping on the phone in line next to you about needing to move, why are they leaving? What could they be getting into that they don’t anticipate? How can you imagine the person on the other end of the phone?
  • Nature: This is especially fun for myths and fairy tales. But the environment also can be ripe with options for children’s story’s or fables that teach, such as the ant’s industry. As with everyday items, try to imagine what else the elements could do, like the Ents from the Lord of the Rings or the mail owls from Harry Potter. 
  • Other books: You never want to copy what someone else has done so closely that others accuse you of not having your own style or voice. But when you find a text you like, ask yourself what it is about the book you’re drawn to. Maybe it’s the flavor of the time period or the feeling a specific character gives you. Ask yourself how you can capture or use that for yourself.
  • Art: You of course can try to imagine backstories for the images you find–medieval and renaissance art, in particular, can be great for creation, relationship or war stories. But you also can try to find specific elements in the art. For instance, perhaps you discover a portrait with the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen that feel just right for your main character, or maybe you can come up with a unique metaphor or analogy based on what the artist has done. Some art, like Munch’s The Scream, can invoke specific feelings you can run with. Abstract art is great for this.
  • Interviews and conversations: Talking to others can open your eyes to new perspectives and even provide the basis for characterizations. Pay attention not only to what they tell you, but elements like word choice and pace of speech.

And yes, you of course can dive into writing prompts for ideas, too. These have both pros and cons, as I explored in this previous blog. But these don’t work for everybody. If they’re not you’re cup of tea, don’t sweat it.

Great ideas can come from anywhere. The big key is to let go of biases that tell you “can’t”. The Tangled frying pans, for instance, require you to abandon the idea that you only can use the pans to cook. Constraints like this are built over a lifetime of experience, so they’re hard to abandon, but just let yourself free associate and see what happens. Prune out what you don’t like later, not as you go.


Beta Readers: What They Are and Why You Should Use Them

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Any time you want to make something better, getting some feedback is critical. Writing is no exception, which is where beta readers come in.

What’s a beta reader?

Beta readers are simply people who agree to read and “test” your draft before publication and tell you what they think. Sometimes, they can formalize their critique with written notes and comments. Other times, it’s all in conversation. Either way, beta readers offer your first clue about how you are truly coming off to your readers, what the strengths of the draft are and what areas you could tweak for improvement. And it’s not unusual for writers to send a draft to their beta readers multiple times.

Where can I find betas?

You can find beta readers in plenty of places, such as writer’s groups at your local library, hitting up your friends and family, or connecting with mentors in your professional network. There are also online communities on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Freelance or agency editors also can beta read for you.

Do I have to pay my beta readers?

There’s some debate about whether to compensate beta readers. Some betas are willing to read for free, simply because they absolutely love good content and because they value making connections within the writing industry. But some people feel that, because beta readers truly do perform a service, you always should compensate them. Still others will find a middle ground, bartering services or beta reading for each other. The key is, you and your betas both should feel like the reading arrangement is fair before you start.

Will betas give me the same quality of service as an editor?

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that informal beta readers can’t do a terrific job compared to editors. Many informal betas are profoundly well read or have written themselves for years, and they have a real passion for helping others make the most of their ideas. They can let themselves be more concerned with the emotional impact of your writing and whether you’re letting readers have a good time. Even so, an editor might be able to spend more time on the draft one-on-one with you than an informal beta, and you might find that they can be more objective compared to readers you’re close to. Some writers like to go through beta reading to make sure the tone or flavor of the piece is on target, and then let the editor worry more about the technical side. That said, most editors still want to work on pieces that stir them and make them think, so there’s no hard and fast rule.

In any case, having multiple betas can be advantageous in that you’re going to get a larger number of viewpoints and suggestions. It’s a good idea to make sure that, even as you aim for your target reading group (e.g., middle-aged men who are married and like Game of Thrones), you have some diversity in your beta group so you can catch biases that could be logistically or culturally problematic. Jeanine Cummings’ American Dirt is a recent example of a book that could have benefited from a more diverse beta readership. It has been criticized not only for its depiction of Mexico and immigrants, but as an example of the limited paths to publication for people of color.

When should I connect with beta readers?

Beta readers can work with you at any point of the writing process–even a single paragraph can be enough for a quick critique. They often can help you make good decisions if you’re at a writing crossroads, and they can ask questions that spark new details or paths for the draft. If you’ve already got a complete draft, it’s easy to feel more invested, but it’s important not to get to attached to what you’ve written, and to take what the betas say into full consideration. You definitely should have done some degree of beta reading before you send a draft off in a query to an agent or publisher.

No matter what type of writing you’re doing, beta readers can be a secret weapon for polishing your concepts on the page. They also give you great practice in collaborating on a basic level. Even if you work only with a small, trusted handful, hand your manuscript off as often as you can.


Should You Specialize as a Writer?

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Finding writing work often is a challenging task. But as you’re looking for jobs, you’ll realize that you can either specialize in one area or take more of a jack-of-all trades approach. Is one any better than the other, and do you have to choose between them?

What makes specializing awesome

One big advantage of specialization in writing is that you acquire a ton of expertise on your key subject. That can make it a snap to go back to sources you already know well, or to write with the efficiency that comes from having information mentally on hand. If you can write more authoritatively and faster because you really know what you’re talking about, it’s often possible to finish more projects in the same amount of time. That can translate into more paychecks.

Additionally, as an expert writer in your area, you can gain a good reputation as someone who’s reporting or points of view are trustworthy. Clients might seek you out because of this, and it becomes more likely that people will share your work through social media, email or other platforms. This is incredibly important, because the less time you have to spend marketing yourself and looking for work, the more time you actually can spend doing real writing.

The advantages of spreading your writing wings

On the other hand, specializing of course means that you will be much more limited in your writing topics. And after writing about SEO, SpaceX or how best to plant tulips for the thousandth time, you might feel bored or caged in. Being open to a wide range of topics means that you’ll always be learning something new in a way that can keep your interest, creativity and motivation higher.

Going after a lot of different writing topics also means that you’ll have access to a larger publishing network. Instead of establishing relationships just with editors who publish about, say, cooking, you also could send queries and manuscripts to business, fitness, entertainment or all kinds of other editors. That larger network can be incredibly helpful if you happen to encounter a dry spell with some of your more regular clients or publishers, potentially giving you a way to work even in times of greater economic insecurity or heightened office politics.

Lastly, choosing to write about anything under the sun can challenge you to get comfortable with a broader range of formats, such as essay or listicle. You’ll also feel at ease with a variety of content lengths, tones and style guides. That can bring more flexibility into your writing so that you can find your real voice, even as you deliver what clients and editors ask for.

Personally, I’ve sort of straddled the middle ground here. At the moment, most of my paid work comes from writing business-related content, especially articles for blogs and other Internet pages. But I’ve also written on everything from fitness to dentistry, and I’ve worked with both secular and faith-based organizations. I enjoy being able to take both approaches, alternating based on my circumstances and feelings. You might be like me in that regard, and you don’t necessarily have to live entirely in one camp or the other forever. But otherwise, my take is, if you want to monetize knowledge you already have and you really enjoy routine, efficiency and deeper connection with editors, working in one area you’re passionate about might be a better fit for you. If you find that you get antsy without a chance to explore or feel like you need some variety to improve your skill as a writer, lean toward writing anything you can.