Show vs Tell

Authors get this note all the time. “Show, don’t tell!” But what does it mean? Showing helps the reader feel a part of the scene instead of getting a lot of information dumped on them.

Compare these two paragraphs:

Joe went to the corral and decided which horse he wanted to catch. He picked the buckskin stud. He entered the corral and made his way over to the horse, slipping the rope around his neck just before the horse ran. He tied the other end to the post so the horse couldn’t get away. The buckskin fought the rope.


Joe headed to the corral and leaned on the railing. There he was. That buckskin stud was already making eyes at him from across the dusty expanse. Joe climbed between the rails, hefting the lasso in his hand, getting a feel for its weight. He moved alongside the chestnut, then the paint, keeping their bodies between him and the buckskin. He’d almost made it across the corral when the buckskin stuck his head in the air and snorted. Joe darted towards him and tossed the loop over his neck, pulling it tight before he swiftly wrapped the end of the rope around the nearest post, securing the animal. The buckskin reared, pawing the air above Joe’s head with his sharp hooves.

Can you see the difference? Yes, we find out what’s happening in the first paragraph, but there is no sensory input, we don’t feel like we’re in the scene. In the second paragraph, we can see Joe leaning against the corral, making eye contact with the buckskin. We experience how he gets across the corral, closer to his intended target, by staying behind other horses, so he doesn’t spook the one he wants.

Now, all that being said, you want to strike a balance between showing and telling. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to show every detail in your book; it would be an overload. What reader wants to know every detail of your character opening a door, or driving to work? Unless something pertinent to the story is going to happen, these things can be glossed over in a telling mode.

Some stories are submitted that are almost all in telling mode, however. This won’t get your book contracted. Readers don’t want to be lectured to, and they don’t want to be talked at. They want to feel like they’re right there beside your hero or heroine, fighting monsters, facing the enemy, and finding love. Showing eliminates the distance and lets your readers do just that.

Do the Work

I’ve been freelancing for some time, and the one thing I find myself fighting a lot is the idea that editing isn’t needed. That topic has been covered numerous times here and on other writing and editorial blogs. I’m going to take a slightly different take here.

While I applaud the writers out there who realize they need an editor, they also need to make sure they know the mechanics of writing. I am blessed with many clients who not only know the mechanics of writing, they also have a delicious talent for turning a phrase. They can build suspense and create fascinating characters. However, not all writers are created equal.

If you want to write a book, I support you all the way. If you don’t even remember your basic English fundamentals, do yourself and whatever editor you eventually hire a favor and invest in some writing texts. Read them. Live them. Write according to their guidelines.

Are you familiar with punctuation rules? Brush up a bit. Some fun reads that deal with punctuation include Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh. These books teach with humor. There are also some humorous books dealing with parts of speech like The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon and Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor. Texts like these make learning to write fun.

Once you have a good grasp of sentence structure, paragraphing, and so on, work on your story. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from a writers’ group or beta readers. Take the feedback as the well-intentioned criticism it is. Go back and revise. Then revise again. Few writers can pound out a first draft that is ready for the editor. I certainly don’t know any, and the books we write take several go-rounds with revision.

Be honest with yourself. Once you are finally ready to submit it to an editor, how much editing do you need? If you tell me you only need a light edit and choose that level of work, yet your manuscript really needs a lot more work, you’re not spending your editorial dollars wisely. I find it incredibly frustrating to have to hold myself to a light edit or proofread when the manuscript needs major work. I can only imagine how frustrating it is for the writer as well, when they get a manuscript back covered in red marks and comment balloons, yet the really major issues have not been dealt with. I try to add in a comment at the beginning outlining the suggestions I would make, but I don’t have the ability to address the structural and plumbing issues if I’ve only been hired to dust.

So do the work. Writing isn’t easy. It comes from the heart, and to put it forth adequately, writers need to learn the skills. Like any job, be it medicine, law, or the culinary arts, to really shine, you’ve got to do the work.

It will help your writing, it will help your books, and it will help your readership.