Let's face it: Writing is hard. There's no way around that. That's why we have such great admiration for people who do it well. People like you!

And there's one thing that almost any writer--whether they write fiction or nonfiction--could stand to do more of in their writing that would automatically make it better. (Yes, I just used their as a third-person singular pronoun. I think it's high time we stopped awkwardly dancing around it and just embraced it. #wordnerd #englishisweird)

This is one issue that sets amateurs apart from professional writers. In fact, it's something your high-school English teacher probably tried to drill into you:

Show. Don't tell.

What do your teacher and I mean by that? Here's another way of saying it, as an unknown person beautifully paraphrased it from Anton Chekov:

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

In other words, use sensory details--information gathered through sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste--to convey mood, emotion, setting, and so on. (This works a bit differently when you're writing nonfiction, which I'll cover in tomorrow's post.) See, anyone can tell you something. In fact, readers may feel insulted by this kind of writing, as if you're talking down to them or don't trust them to "get" your point. For example, what would you think if you opened a novel written for adults and found sentences like these?

  • "Leila felt sad about failing her math test."

  • "The abandoned house was spooky."

It kind of feels like reading a kids' book, doesn't it? Not that there's anything wrong with kids' books. But if you're writing for (young) adults, that's not the effect you want to have. Maybe this is just my brain that over-analyzes everything, but when I read those sentences, I also find myself asking, "Well, how do you know that Leila was sad and the house was spooky?" In the real world, people and objects don't have labels or captions that tell us what they are or how to think about them. We have to decipher sensory clues to make those judgments ourselves. And if we want our writing to be lifelike, we have to give readers that same chance.  To continue the example from above, what would you think if you opened a different book for adults and found sentences like these?

  • "Leila's eyes filled as a big red 'F' scolded her from the top of the math test she'd studied for all week."

  • "Cobwebs swathed the old house's cracked rafters like bandages on a desiccated mummy."

In these sentences, no one has to tell you that Leila is sad or that the house is spooky. You can work that out for yourself. You may even feel some of the sadness or fear from the situations in those scenes. And that's one of the ultimate goals of writing: to make our readers feel what the characters feel. 

Try it for yourself. Find a place in your current WIP where you're telling instead of showing. Think about that scene and what sensory details might be present. What do your characters hear, see, smell, and so on? Then remove the "telling" part of the scene and replace it with those sensory details. I can almost guarantee that the resulting scene will be stronger.

Write on,


(Modified from an email originally sent to subscribers on 1/13/2020. Photo by Tony Tran on Unsplash)