Everyone has heard the oft-repeated advice show, don’t tell. I am a proponent of this advice…however…like all pieces of advice do not accept it as gospel. As a writer you must understand that there are times when you need to “tell” your reader something rather than drag it out by showing. If you need evidence of this, think of a novel you read that was 500 pages, and you realized it should have been 250. We’ve all read those books where it was apparent someone thought they had to show everything, and not only does the story drag as a result but the story is often lost in all that rhetoric.
If a scene is important to moving a story forward, then you should show the reader what happens. However, if the reader merely needs to know that something took place to understand a current narrative thread, then update the reader through telling. Another problem with showing and telling can be doing both. Not trusting the reader to get the picture you’ve created so you tell after you’ve shown.
Nancy’s jaw locked and her eyes narrowed. She leaned into his personal space making sure he felt the need to back up. She pressed her finger into his chest and leveled him. “Never, never cross me again.” Nancy was beyond angry.
The comment Nancy was angry is unnecessary and is a case of the writer telling the reader after they have already shown the read that Nancy is pretty pissed off. Trust the reader. If you are showing them what is happening in the story, that’s all the lead they’ll need.
Writing is not easy and yet everyone I meet says, “I’d like to write a book.” Or they have an idea for a book or they always thought they’d write a book, etc. Usually what they mean is they like the “idea” of writing a book. The reality is just not as fun. Frankly, the only thing I find harder work than writing is parenting. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the process or that I’m not passionate about it, I am. However, it is a craft that requires due diligence to use an overworked phrase.
A first draft of a paper is solely for the eyes of the writer. Reread that, please. Many students don’t understand that. Many writers don’t understand that. Our world has far too many first drafts. The sign in a window that has misspellings or the billboard beside the highway with egregious errors in huge letters. Or my all time favorite: close captioning that has more errors in it than a major league ballgame. Those writers didn’t glance over their drafts a second time, and they should have. For most, it’s not worth the extra work.
Only the writer should see a first draft so when a student turns in a first draft in class, it should technically be their second draft. A draft they’ve written, run spell check on, reread, corrected glaring errors on, and then submitted. Unfortunately, as a professor, I see second drafts that look like a twin of the first, a third that looks like the second, and so on. There is no purpose to turning in the same draft multiple times. It’s like submitting the same pie three times in a contest. It’s not going to taste any better the second or third time. As a writer, the student isn’t going to see any growth without putting in the hard work on all drafts.
Writing is about detail, essence. It’s about the minutiae. It’s mired in style and voice and structure. No one will get there in one draft. Shakespeare didn’t. Stephen King doesn’t. Certainly, a student writer won’t. No one expects you to. Just know that you have to put in the hard work to get to that point where the work exceeds your expectations and mine. That’s what you’re working towards. Keep that goal in sight and forge ahead.
It’s important to keep writing as active as possible. This does not mean that passive voice doesn’t have its place. However, if a piece of prose is passive from beginning to end, the reader will probably be snoozing before they’re done reading. Check out the following sentences. By eliminating the passive verb, the sentence is stronger.
She went dancing every night.
She danced every night.
This is a simple example of the concept, but if you review your writing, you’ll find plenty of examples of these types of sentences. How can you make the second sentence stronger? Ask questions. What kind of dancing? Is she dancing to put food on the table? Or does she hang out at a lonely heart’s bar? Or does she do it at the YMCA in an attempt to lose weight? Look at all the options available and determine which makes the most sense for what you’re trying to say and then make your sentence more concrete.
She danced every night at the YMCA determined to take off those extra 30 pounds.
Why is she trying to lose weight? An opportunity to add more concrete details.
She danced every night at the YMCA determined to take off those extra 30 pounds before her 20th high school reunion.
We have taken a sentence that was weak in construction and built a carefully constructed concrete sentence. As you edit your papers, be aware of the construction of your sentences. Passive construction in a first draft is fine but upon revision seek to strengthen your prose.