Friday, July 1, 2011

Editing Demon #1: Show, don't Tell!

This week, I have been doing a confessional postmortem in the wake of my editing and re-writing battle to smooth out my NaNo novel for the betareaders. On Monday, I looked at "passive voice," which I am wrestling down, and on Wednesday, I looked at "head hopping," which I have made good progress with.

Today, in the final installment, we have perhaps one of the hardest editing shore - "telling instead of showing."

What is it? To be honest, I am still unclear what this little accusation means. I know it is a dreadful habit, but as much as I have read about it, it's all still very fuzzy for me. I know the clinical definition usually describes a bad writing habit in which the writer announces actions or states, without making the reader feel/see them for themselves. However, in general, it is something that I can only really understand when I see it.

So, an example: If I told you "She was very hungry," that wouldn't be as evocative as saying, "Her stomach groaned in protest after missing lunch." The first, while clear, concise and true, is not as descriptive as the second. Yet, the second allows the reader to know what is going on without the author stepping in and telling them what s/he wants them to see.

Another example: "His cat is very smart." This is quite bland, lacks evidence, and represents the author's voice telling the reader something s/he believes, rather than describing things that would allow the reader to draw the required conclusion. In short, it tells rather than shows. Instead, try this: "His cat does his taxes and runs a small online yarn supply store in his spare time."

As you can see, the first sentence there tells you something, but the second one gives you information that would certainly allow you to draw the same conclusion, but for yourself. This is preferable for obvious reasons - especially since the second sentence is a lot more interesting than the first.

I am pleased that this is not a problem my editors have called me on a lot in the past. Naturally, it has come up a few times, but I wouldn't call it a chronic concern (I hope!). Still, I am paranoid about it, though, because it is not something I mentally screen for by nature. It is an easy error to make when you are the author and you know what the reader is meant to get from every bit of text. It is also easy to tell instead of show when you are trying to avoid overly purple prose.

You see, the main is issue is that "showing" instead of "telling" constantly would conflict with one of the major commandments of clear writing: Say as much as possible with as few words as needed. Showing is not as efficient as telling, that is for sure, so you are left with the need to balance the need to show and the need to keep your writing clean and well-groomed. Therefore, the dreaded "show, don't tell!" remark is a giant pain in the butt if you are worried about "omit needless words" comment.

The Scylla and Charybdis of writing fiction, if you will.

***

There are exemptions to the rule, naturally, and places where telling is preferable to showing. Showing everything, all the time, in a story would not be a good idea, since this would lead to a gargantuan manuscript, as well as a book that leaves both you and the reader exhausted. Further, the most practical use of telling over showing is when you want to skip a passage of time to get to a more crucial scene. Not every detail is essential to the story's meaning or to the reader's experience. Those unessential bits are where merely telling is useful, so you can move along to the important parts.

However, this should be done consciously and directly. Accidental telling where showing would be better needs to be in control, and slips need to be pointed out by a qualified editor of fiction.

I have no quick fixes for this pitfall, really. It is something that can only be really helped in your training and practice. It can be fixed in editing, by re-reading and re-writing lines until they as descriptive as you need, as well as concise as possible. However, I think the best way to remedy the tendency to tell instead of show is to practice your writing and be mindful of what you are doing, the entire time you are writing: can what you are saying be better shown than told? Sadly, that is not a quick fix.

But there are "tricks" that you can use to make your writing show instead of tell. The first is to use figurative and illustrative examples, instead of direct assertions. For example, instead of "Jim was attracted to Steve," you can say, "Whenever he was around Steve, Jim's heart would race." The reader can draw the conclusion of attraction from that, I should think. The second trick would be to put things in evocative dialogue instead of in declarative lines. Finally, the most common rule-of-thumb in editing is to be on the lookout for "was" and "is" - these are often markers of sentences that tell instead of show. However, even these are not hard rules, and nothing can replace a careful reading.

Remember: Showing instead of telling is the best way to show people you are a good writer, as opposed to just telling them you are. If your writing draws them in, they will know you are a good writer without needing to be told. We can all agree, this is a much more convincing way for them to learn of your talent.

***

And there you have some of the phases that I go through in editing. It may not make for thrilling reading, but I feel better having itemized my tasks. I am hopeful that this new novel will be my best yet, as long as I badger myself into editing carefully and ruthlessly. And this is a task well served by making a clear list of problems in my head as I enter the post-betareading revision, in preparation for submission of the manuscript.

Writing is a craft, and one is always able to improve and hone. Writing is only improved through extensive reading and writing, accompanied by useful discussion of the craft itself. Visualization and honest assessment is crucial to this progress.

I don't know if this little series has helped you at all, but it has me. Thanks!

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