I have heard "show, don't tell," at least a thousand times from writing teachers, gurus, workshop leaders, etc. However, just like those who warn against hyperbole (*w*), these teachers often didn't bother to explain what they mean by "show" or "tell," or why one is preferred over the other.
I think as students taught to be writers of nonfiction, we are trained to write summaries so much that we assume that shortcuts are not actually twisty weedy tracks, but the main roads of good writing. We begin to apply these shortcuts to our own writing instead of creating something memorable.
For example: "He was sad."
When we tell our readers how our characters (fictional or not) are feeling, we are being lazy. No one is going to remember that sentence, and they won't feel sad, either.
On the other hand: "He snuffled into a tissue damp with tears as he stared with wet eyes at his dead dog."
Here the writer does NOT tell how the character is feeling, but it is evident. In fact, not only do you know that the character is sad, you know how sad, for how long (enough to wet at least one tissue) and why. Plus, if you've ever had a pet die, you instantly empathize with the character.
Make your words work. The second passage does so much more than state a feeling: it gives action (crying), it gives a character sketch (he loved the dog), and it implies a story (why is the dog dead?). And it's only one sentence. One sentence that doesn't TELL you that the man is sad. It SHOWS you how he's feeling.
In non-fiction, the onus is on the writer to spell out his meaning to the reader. In fiction, the writer gives hints to meaning and the reader spells it out for herself. This is why two people can have wildly different interpretations of fiction (as they do for art, music and other art forms). The art is in the ambiguity. Let the ambiguity be, but leave me a trail of fat breadcrumbs in the forest.
Your prompt for today is to look at a piece of your writing and find a spot where you have told the reader how a character is feeling. Re-write that scene without the emotion words, and make the character do something that reveals how she is feeling.
Okay, so three days a week for blogging is too ambitious. I always aim too high. However, I still have lots to say, so I will commit to at least one post a week on the topics I listed before. I say we dive in. Here we go!
The Writing Process Overview
Once upon a time, when writing was taught, students were given professional examples of writing, taught grammar, and then were sent back to their lonely rooms to produce a final draft. The only grade was given to the final product, so this model of writing instruction has been named the "Product" model.
It didn't work extremely well. Students were shown examples of masterly-crafted works and taught some mechanics of language, and then were expected to re-create the masterworks. It's a bit like showing an art student a Renoir, and that one can apply paint with a brush, and then sending her out to make her own masterpiece. There was some instruction in the middle that was missing.
Another model of teaching writing is called the "Process" model. It focuses more on that middle part. Teachers who use the process model recognize that not only is there a middle part to writing, but that this middle part is worth studying and teaching.
Every writer is different and has a different process. There are people who write fifty drafts and are never satisfied and those writers who sit down once and produce camera-ready final drafts (these writers are drafting in their heads, but more on that later).
Basically, the writing process can be broken down into the following steps:
1. Creating 2. Drafting 3. Revising 4. Editing
All writers go through these steps, although not all writers go through them in the same order, or give them the same attention. The point is that each step is a valuable part of writing, and if each is not addressed, the final draft will suffer.
In the next weeks, I'll address each of these in detail, with examples and exercises.
This week, your assignment is to consider your own writing process. How do you approach, attack, and complete a writing project? What steps do you take? What works and what doesn't work?
As I said in my earlier post, I want to write tips for writers that I would normally give during my writing classes at the university where I teach. These posts will be categorized under "Writing" so you can search for them easily.
I am also going to write them in the order I would discuss them in a class, so that each post will build a little on the knowledge presented in previous posts. However, each post will stand alone, so if you just need a little help with style, you won't need to go back and re-read the post on brainstorming (unless you'd like do, naturally).
Below is a list of a few of the things I hope to write about this summer:
Creating--that is, brainstorming, games, listing, and other ways to turn on the creative juices
Drafting--writing fast, locking up the editor, and other ways to get that first draft out.
Revising--Editing, proofreading, "re-seeing" your writing
Style--those things which separate "good" from "Great" writing
Grammar--the mechanics of writing, mastery of which creates clear meaning.
Vocabulary--When to use the $5 words and when not to (and what they mean)
Also, I hope to make these posts fun. This one isn't so much fun, so I should throw in an example with an aardvark or something. Nah, that would be trying too hard, and you smart people would see through that ploy.
This is finals week at the University, so by Friday, I hope to be free of teaching obligations, so I can post on a more regular schedule. Here's hoping!
Until then, here is your writing prompt for the week:
What is the single biggest obstacle between you writing as well (or as much) as you'd like?
I have had this blog for years now, and I have a few loyal readers, which is very nice. I began this writing blog in 2009 after I won my first NaNoWriMo.org contest. I felt the need to write about writing because I had just finished my first novel manuscript, but I didn’t have much more focus than that.
Well, that’s going to change. With the launch of the paperback version of Liz A. Stratton Closes the Store, I want to build a better platform for my writing so that you will tell your friends about this fun writing blog, and then they will go buy a copy of my book. Honesty is good, right?
My other impetus is as a writing teacher. I have taught writing for 15 years, and I feel the need to offer advice to all you lovely people. There are so few good writing texts out there that are actually readable--you know, enjoyable reads. Ironic, isn’t it? (btw, Bruce Ballenger'sbooks are notable exceptions). I thought I’d try my hand at making the old new again by making the cracker-dry and boring, berry-luscious and scintillating.
So, here is my plan for summer 2012:
Mondays – My posts will focus on Writing (brainstorming, drafting, creating, chaining up the editor, letting the muse in)
Wednesdays – I will post on Editing and Revision topics (letting the editor out of her box, style, word choice, craft)
Fridays – I’ll relate my Independent publishing experiences.
Updates and cool stuff will be posted whenever the mood strikes me.
I’ll explain all these in more detail in future posts.
To be honest with you, three scheduled posts a week is ambitious for me. This summer I am working on a new book (of course), and I have two little girls, an alpaca farm, a novelling class, and all sorts of other irons in the fire. However, I have to be busy to be productive (Want something done quickly? Ask a busy person to do it.)
So, please tell your friends! Not only will I be giving away all that knowledge you normally have to pay college tuition for, I’m going to attempt to deliver said knowledge in a pithy, interesting way.