Editor Naomi Hughes tells us more about “Show, Don’t Tell.
I saw a blog post on Twitter by freelance editor Naomi Hughes where she covered some of the most common problems she sees in manuscripts. It was packed with great advice. I asked Naomi if she could share some of her insights with us.
Middle Grade Mafia: Most writers have heard “Show, don’t tell” but some of us might not realize that we’re “telling” as much as we are. One of the types of “telling” that you highlighted was characterization. Will you explain that and give an example?
Naomi Hughes: Sure! So telling via characterization can be tricky, because a lot of writers think the only way readers can get to know characters is by informing us of their traits. As a result, they drop in tidbits like “Jackie was surly” or “Bob always got to class on time, being a punctual person.” But that’s actually shallow and tell-y characterization—it’s like you telling me “I’m a nice person” versus me spotting you giving your last piece of candy to a lonely little kid at a bus stop. I have to take your word for the first; but with the latter, I can see for myself that you’re nice without you ever having to tell me so. I usually advise writers to find small in-scene moments like that where a character displays a certain trait via an action that shows us what kind of person they are.
MGM: You recommend avoiding filter words. What are filter words and why aren’t they good for the story?
NH: Filter words are tricksy little verbs like “see,” “thought,” “felt,” “heard,” “realized,” etc. They’re bad for your story because they place your POV character between readers and the scene as a middle man—instead of being immersed in the scene and watching it unfold for ourselves, we’re constantly reminded that someone else is doing the seeing and the hearing, and that can distance readers from the story. Plus, filter words are usually pretty boring verbs and don’t really give us any actual information about the scene.
Luckily, this is an easy fix! “I heard the gate unlock” can become “The gate creaked open,” and “She realized she’d forgotten her keys” can turn into “She rummaged through her purse and came up empty—the keys were still on the kitchen counter.” This lets you replace boring, tell-y filter words with much cooler and more evocative verbs that invite your reader into the scene.
MGM: In your experience, what type of telling do you see used most often by new writers?
NH: I usually see new writers skim over scenes and sum up action or decisions, instead of showing them in-scene. For example, they’ll say something like “I was in a hurry all morning. I barely caught the bus, and then I arrived at school with my hair looking apocalyptic.” And while that gives us general information about their morning, it doesn’t actually allow us to watch a scene unfolding on the page, and that makes it tough to invest in the story.
MGM: Are there instances when telling is okay to do?
NH: Sure! If you’re doing it intentionally and sparingly, it’s totally fine. There are also certain genres that lend themselves to a naturally tell-ier writing style than others. For example, women’s fiction tends to focus on a character’s personal journey instead of a big external plot, which means a lot of the story ends up happening in the main characters’ heads instead of through in-scene moments. Even then, though, it’ll be easier to engage readers if you keep the telling/showing ratio as low as possible.
You can learn more of Naomi’s observations about common problems HERE.
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