Writing Tips – Show, Don’t Tell

Consider the following passage:

John-Paul was a successful businessman. He was six foot tall and athletically built, with blue eyes and blond hair. His brother was called George. John-Paul was a rich man who drove a Jaguar and owned a large house in the suburbs. All his family holidays were taken abroad and they always flew first class. His parents were huge fans of the Beatles, which was how John-Paul got his name. He was named after John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Despite being rich and powerful, John-Paul was a kind hearted man…blah, blah, blah

Snore – oh, do excuse me. I dropped off for a minute there.

If this passage were to be used as notes for the author’s own reference, fine. Even if this were a first draft, there’s plenty that the author can edit and refine at a later date – as long as they do edit and refine it. Sadly, though, I have encountered self-published books (clearly un-edited) which actually begin like this, bombarding the reader with far more information than they can take in at once. Whether or not the writing style improves I can’t say, as by page four I’ve usually given up.


Because it’s boring.

So how does an author get information across to their readers in a way they’ll enjoy and remember? Two ways: one, introduce the information bit by bit so the readers can gradually get to know the characters as they’d get to know someone they’d met in the “real” world. This is also true for places, background information – anything essential to the story.

Two, pretty much anything can be shown to the readers. They don’t need to be told when they can work it out for themselves.

John-Paul parked in his reserved parking space and locked his expensive car, then strode with natural athletic grace towards the door of the pristine Financial District skyscraper in which he worked.

What does the reader now know about John-Paul? Well, he’s rich (expensive car), successful (he has a reserved parking space in the Financial District) and he keeps himself fit (couch potatoes don’t tend to have athletic grace). However, not one of these facts has been stated in so many words.

On the way into work, John-Paul’s blue eyes alighted upon a homeless man, shivering as he sold copies of the Big Issue. Making a detour into the nearest Starbucks, John-Paul ordered a large coffee then crossed the road.

“Here you are, Joe,” he said, handing the steaming drink to the Big Issue seller. “Milk and two sugars, just as you like it.”

From this our readers can deduce the blue-eyed John-Paul is kind hearted, clearly on a regular basis (he’s friendly enough with Joe to know his name and how he takes his coffee), and they don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes in order to make the deduction.

Later that day:

Walking into the bar to meet his friends, John-Paul was transported back to his childhood as “Love Me Do” rang out from the jukebox. Growing up with two Beatles fanatics as parents, he and his brother George had passed every day of their formative years to a soundtrack of the Fab Four’s music.

(I didn’t have the heart to give John-Paul another brother called Ringo!)

John-Paul’s visit to the pub tells the readers enough about his childhood for them to work out for themselves how he got his name – and please don’t try to explain for the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with the Beatles. Can you imagine it?

John-Paul was called John-Paul after Lennon and McCartney because his parents loved the Beatles. That is John Lennon and Paul McCartney, you understand, the main songwriters behind the Beatles, the highly successful sixties band

Snore, indeed!

When I first started editing, I myself wasn’t clear on what writing coaches and other experts meant by “Show, don’t tell”. It sounded like great advice, but how did it actually work in practice? Fittingly enough, I was shown the answer to this question via some of the manuscripts on which I was working, and the first intimation I had was through dialogue:

James and Minnie met for coffee.

“Hi, James, the usual?” said Minnie.

“Yes please,” said James gratefully.

“Two lattes please,” said Minnie to the barista. “So, James, how are you?” she asked, turning back to James.

“Great thanks, Minnie,” said James happily. “I’ve just won the promotion I was after at work, and my daughter’s been accepted to study at Cambridge,” he added proudly.

“My daughter can’t even be bothered to get up in the morning to go to the job centre,” said Minnie jealously.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Minnie,” said James sympathetically.

“Oh great, that makes all the difference,” said Minnie sarcastically.

I’ve added far more information than is needed in the above example. Let’s break it down.

“Hello, Minnie,” said James.

We already know that James and Minnie are the only characters involved in the scene, so “Hello, Minnie” is enough to show the readers that it’s James speaking. There’s really no need to tell them.

“I’ve been promoted and my daughter’s going to Cambridge.”

I’m sure the readers can work out from this statement how James is feeling. The words he’s spoken have shown them he’s proud – well, he’s hardly going to be feeling embarrassed about successful job promotions and prestigious university places. Sometimes, of course, you will have to tell the readers who’s speaking and who’s listening, but wherever possible ask yourself if you can dispense with the constant “he said”, “she said” after every piece of dialogue. Your writing will flow far better for it.

As well as showing the readers who is talking and how they’re feeling, dialogue can also give them plenty of clues about the characters’ personalities (Minnie is obviously rather a bitter and jealous woman, unable to appreciate her friend’s successes as she’s so bogged down by her perceived failures), their lives (James is clearly making a success of his, and they each have at least one daughter) and their tastes (they both enjoy a latte).

Now, I have done editing work for many authors who instinctively use the show rather than tell technique, and as a result their writing style is wonderful. Without doubt, their readers will be hungry for more. However, while having no intention of being patronising, I felt this post was a worthwhile exercise as there are plenty of authors, including those who already “get it”, who ask me to explain show, don’t tell. I hope I have succeeded.

This week I’ve touched upon dialogue, which is a favourite of mine both to read and to write, so next week I’ll delve into it in more depth.


If you’re an author looking for an editor and you’d like more information on the services I offer, please either click on the image below or email me directly on alisoneditor@outlook.com.


Writing Tips – Self-Editing

What? A professional editor advising writers to self-edit? Surely not!

I’d like to make one thing abundantly clear right now: I am advising self-editing in addition to employing both a professional editor and a proof reader, not instead of doing so. Even the best writers in the world will miss crucial mistakes in their manuscript – unrealistic timelines, misleading or superfluous storylines, howling typos – because they’re simply too close to it. When an author’s eaten, slept and breathed their manuscript for weeks, months or even years, they get to the point where they may be reading the words on the page, but what their brain’s seeing is whatever they intended to write. (‘He visited they’re house’ made a valiant attempt to sneak into my debut novel, despite me reading the manuscript through about 100 times. Thank God for proof readers!)


So why self-edit at all? Why not hand your manuscript over to the professionals the second you type ‘The end’ and have done with it? Two words – first draft. Do you really want someone else seeing the initial results of your brain going into overdrive while your hands struggled to type the words fast enough? No, neither do I. Furthermore, many editors and proof readers charge per 1,000 words, so if you can rein in the word count it’ll gain you some Brownie points with your bank manager too.

Self-editing is very relevant to me at the moment since I spent my Christmas break working through my own novel, Dory’s Avengers, due for re-release later in the year. I did this with the benefit of hindsight, extensive editing experience and the constructive criticisms of a number of reviewers, none of which I had four years ago when I first signed up to publish (with a vanity publisher – big mistake). Back then the manuscript weighed in at a whopping 163,000 words; I’ve since cut out 40,000 words of waffle and over-emphasis, rewritten passages that struggled, and dealt with characters acting out of character (why would someone who’s snivelling and needy in one chapter suddenly become admirably strong willed in the next?) and knowing things they couldn’t possibly know. (Just met someone for the first time? Well naturally you’re going to know all the names of their extended family – not!) Having done all this, though, I will still be employing professionals to go over my work before I publish. Yes, even editors use editors.

If you’re not happy with parts of your manuscript, the likelihood is your readers won’t enjoy those parts either. Can they be amended? Do they need to be included at all? Does your prologue (if you have one) entice people to read on or turn out the light and go to sleep? Does your epilogue (if you have one) add anything to the story, or is it just that you can’t let go? (Yep, been there, done that.) I know scrutinising every part of your manuscript will take time, but it’s well worth the effort.

Over the coming weeks I will share with authors following my blog the writing tips I’ve compiled from my three years as an editor, but I want to emphasise that these are only tips, not rules. You are the creative talent behind your manuscript and it’s essential that your author voice is heard; I merely make suggestions to help you produce a sublime reading experience. Next week I intend to tackle the ‘show don’t tell’ concept you may have heard writing coaches and other such experts lauding. Many authors ask me about that one, but it’s really not as daunting as it sounds. However, I recognise it’s not enough simply to wag an admonishing finger and say, ‘Ah, you should show your readers, not tell them’. It would be a lot better if I actually – well – showed you!


If you’re an author looking for an editor and you’d like more information on the services I offer, please either click on the image below or email me directly on alisoneditor@outlook.com.