Monday’s Writerly Quote

It’s been awhile since I did one of these. I’ll keep doing them until I run out of good quotes to post. I think that will be awhile yet.

Today’s quote is brought to you, not only by the letter M but by Vladimir Nobokov, who wrote Lolita, among other novels. This quote made me think a lot about my earlier writing days when I info dumped with the best of them.

We live not only in a world of thoughts, but also in a world of things. Words without experience are meaningless.

Often we think because we’re describing something, we’re showing our readers our world and forget that we’re telling people about our world. (More on this in a minute).

For those of you new to the writing game, you may hear a lot about people saying show, don’t tell. But not a whole lot of people bother to explain what that means. It’s almost a thing you already know or you don’t. The problem with telling is you are just putting down words without experience and they become meaningless to your reader.

The issue for us writers is we have the perfect vision of our story in our heads. And that story is probably fascinating and brilliant, but that doesn’t mean we’ve translated it brilliantly.

So what is telling? The biggest first clue is whenever you use the phrase: could tell. You’ve already got tell in the mix, which tells us you’re telling. For example:

Jae could tell you were confused.

But it’s more than just using the word tell. It’s basically naming the conclusion you want the writer to come to without leading them there. Think of yourself as setting up a crime scene for Sherlock. What do you want him to see without saying a word? That’s how your stories should be written.

She was nervous. –VS- She gripped the podium to calm her shaking hands.

Don’t tell me they were angry, afraid, nervous, happy, etc., etc. Show me. Then your words will create an experience that will be meaningful.

But one should also remember, a first draft will probably be full of these and that’s okay. Sometimes we can use them as place markers while we get the guts of the story recorded. Then we can go back in editing and really polish up the words to make sure that meaningful experience comes through.

So, show, don’t tell. Craft meaningful experiences with your words. Polish it up. And don’t worry, I’ll be right there with you doing my own polishing. It’s all a part of our process as writers.

What do you think about the quote? Did you already know what ‘showing vs. telling’ meant? How would you explain it to a new writer? Any great advice you received on how to make sure your writing is showing?


11 thoughts on “Monday’s Writerly Quote

  1. This has always been one of my biggest things with my writing. I am very much a teller, lol. I like the bit where you said that is normal for a first draft then you can go back and change it up. For some reason that should have been clear for me but now it is.

    • It’s hard to polish out the tell, so don’t worry if it takes a lot of effort. I still have some tell here and there I need to pep up to show. I think in our early drafts we’re probably all a bit telling. 😉

  2. Argh. This is the one that I always used to find easy to stick by – but the novel I’m currently writing is quite plot heavy in places and I’ve struggled not to ‘tell’ at times. It’s going to be a struggle to make it work. But you’ve explained it perfectly. Actually, i’ve just copied and pasted it to refer to over the next few weeks…

    • Ooh, I’m glad it was helpful. I know the whole show vs. tell thing can be frustrating (even if you get it you can still end up telling). Editing is where the real hard work comes into play. I always think it’s what separates great writers from the mediocre—even if we have to separate ourselves from mediocrity one step at a time.

  3. It was best explained to me in a book called The Emotional Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It was a piece of writing showing the emotional changes a character underwent and it made tremendous sense to me.

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