Over on my regular blog, which you can find here, I’ve been running a series on self-editing. Later this year I’ll be updating The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers with some of the material in these posts, but until then that will be the only place you can see it. Come on by and take a look. Say hello while you’re there.
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Part 1: Yes, it’s the dreaded “show, don’t tell.” But this article actually tells you what, why, and how.
What are teachers and editors really talking about when they say “Show, don’t tell?” Anything that gets in the way of delivering a direct sensory experience.
Give the readers the most direct experience possible. It really is that simple. The more you get in your own way with unnecessary words that distance the reader from that direct connection with the action of your story, the more you’re telling. Telling denies the reader the experience of story in favor of reporting something to them instead.
Part 8: Of course on widely spaced occasions, fictional characters might remark, comment, shout, shriek, whisper, rasp, hiss, mutter, or growl. For the most part, though, and unless there’s a solid reason to have them do otherwise, they just say stuff. Sometimes they ask stuff, and when they do, someone might reply.
Well-written dialogue spoken by well-drawn characters is the heart of any scene, and scenes are the building blocks of your fiction. A vital part of writing good, believable dialogue is knowing how to handle tags with skill and confidence.
Part 5: A lot of editorial red ink goes into the task of showing new writers what they’re saying that they don’t need to say. I call this problem “superfluous redundancy.” Don’t bother to write me; it’s a joke. But the problem is not.
There are a lot of reasons an editor might suggest text cuts, but you’d be surprised how much of the reasoning boils down to cutting repetition
When a writer is hesitant and unsure how to proceed, he will almost always err on the side of too much explanation, too much justification, too many words. And those words get in the way of the story.
Part 6: It’s vital to keep your story moving forward, but not relentlessly and not always at speed. Likewise, you must allow your characters to stop and think, but not to the point of putting your reader to sleep.
A book that consisted of nothing but gunfights and car chases might be fast-paced but would soon become as boring to read as one where characters sipped tea and chatted about literature for 300 pages.People in fiction, like people in the real world, don’t always live life at the same speed, and readers need a break from both too much laid-back navel gazing and too much break-neck action.
Part 2: Action verbs, like action heroes, kick all the ass.
Stories move best when writers not only use verbs that describe action, but strong, specific verbs that paint a moving picture in the reader’s mind—the more specific the verb, the clearer the picture. A character doesn’t justmove down the street, he walks, stalks, strides, paces, prances, trots, meanders, skips, skulks, runs, dashes, sprints,or gallops. Each of these verbs paints a completely different picture for your reader.
Use your verbs. Kick the ass.
Part 3: My former students and editing clients probably won’t believe I said this, but an adverb is a useful and necessary part of speech. It does a job. It just doesn’t do the job a lot of writers seem to think it does—that of somehow making up for having chosen a flabby verb.
Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives. That’s their job. When used wisely and in moderation, they help convey meaning, and they can improve a non-specific sort of verb by giving the reader more information.
That said, when a strong, specific verb is called for, an adverb is not.
Part 7: Writers of English have extra linguistic resources, owing to that fact that English is two utterly distinct languages more or less happily married into one language of incredible richness. When a word from one branch won’t do, we can always go looking for one belonging to the other. The trick is to know which language to employ in which circumstances.
For the purposes of ordinary, everyday fiction, and even most nonfiction, writing that doesn’t call attention to itself for its own sake is writing that communicates its intentions clearly. When it’s time to make a reader see, hear, taste, smell, or feel something, the language needs to get out of its own way, and that happens when you keep it simple.
Part 4: Writers love words, and they often use too many of them when fewer would serve their writing better.
The earlier in her writing career, the more likely a writer is to add words to explain things that don’t need explaining, to add adverbs when no adverb is called for, to add pet words that are so close to her heart that she doesn’t see them in her manuscript, and to add words that not only don’t move her sentences and paragraphs along, but tie them up and stake them out in the sun.
We’re all prone to these same errors, but once we’ve learned what they are and why we make them, we can use that learning to grow as writers.