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Writing tips: "show, don't tell"

Amy Leibowitz show and tell tips writing writing advice writing encouragement

Everyone's heard "show, don't tell" at least once. It gets passed around in workshops, classes, and critique groups. It takes other forms, too. Sometimes it's labeled as "spoon-feeding" or "info-dumping," depending on the genre. It's probably the most common piece of writing advice ever given.

It's also the most meaningless.

"Show, don't tell" has a somewhat unfortunate history. It may be anti-communist propaganda, and it definitely has colonialist and racist overtones. Leaving that aside, however, it isn't good advice.

For one thing, people don't seem to agree on exactly what it is. Everyone has a different opinion. For another thing, it isn't specific, nor does it take into account variables such as genre or style.

I propose that we throw out that phrase and do better when it comes to critique.

  1. Know the genre and act accordingly. Some genres naturally rely more on what some people think is too much "telling," such as literary or speculative (sci fi, fantasy, etc.).
  2. Ask relevant questions. If you're editing, critiquing, or beta reading a story, and you find a passage that tempts you to say it's "telling," try describing the problem without resorting to substitute phrases. Ask questions about what's happening and why or what the author wants readers to learn or feel.
  3. Offer specific advice. A book may front-load all the backstory or world-building. Instead of offering a snide comment about "info-dumping" or "too much telling," why not suggest something else? For example, spreading the relevant information out lets readers absorb it in a more meaningful way.
  4. Decide if the issue is actually with you and not the book. There is a very popular series that I dislike to the point of cringing every time it's mentioned. Yet everyone else I know loves it. I find the endless descriptions of things tedious, but fans think it draws them into the story. Which of us is right?
What are some other ways you can communicate similar ideas to a writer?

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