When asked for advice on how to write, a common phrase is: “Show, don’t tell.”

But how do you do this, and more importantly, how do you edit your writing to show the story instead of telling it?

Keep reading for some tips on how to do this!

Using all the senses

One of the easiest ways to show instead of telling, is by drawing your reader in through the use of their senses. While they may not be able to physically touch, see, smell, taste or hear your characters, they can certainly imagine them! A well-written piece will allow your readers to feel as though they’ve used all their senses.

This post was inspired by discussions on my writing group, and a couple of the members very kindly granted me permission to use snippets of their writing to illustrate how to edit to show, not tell.

Justin J, a previous participant in the Jozi Flash project submitted this next piece. He’s describing one of his main characters:

She stepped from the light, her features forming in their entirety. Her hair was the colour of the night, but at the same time, it shimmered with starlight. Her skin was the colour of olives, her body curvy and full.

I love Justin’s style of writing. It’s very poetic, and he captures emotion very well. In this particular instance, he was looking for guidance on editing the character’s physical appearance while still keeping the feeling of mystique alive.

By appealing to the senses, and cutting out some repetition, the suggested edits resulted in this:

She stepped from the light, her features forming in their entirety. Hair the colour of night flowed over her voluptuous curves; shimmering with starlight.

The trick in evoking the senses doesn’t lie in describing every detail. It’s in the word choice and order. In this edit, you get the impression of long, dark hair flowing around a sensual goddess.

If you edit it differently, you get a very different first impression:

She stepped from the light, her features forming in their entirety. Starlight bounced off hair the colour of night, highlighting the generous curves of her small frame.

You haven’t really described her any differently, but because you’ve used bounced instead of shimmered, and generous instead of voluptuous, your imagination draws an entirely different picture.

Let’s take a look at another example, kindly provided by K.S. Lomas:

The walls still seem to weep both blood and water. The chamber is unnaturally cold and devoid of all living beings, save one. The rage radiates from her in waves.
She sits in the centre of the circle, her golden eyes now a crimson red as she slashes a thin blade across her wrist, allowing the blood to flow freely into the engravings on the floor.
Words spill from her lips as she chants,

Ar durmista arivae adon drannor alu kel-aeiou
Elda firya nisse neer lav-na
Lusta merke firya lav-na na sermo
Ilya nuquerna naikelea kara
Ilya ilya kelva kotumo nuru

She seals the wound and watches her blood. The liquid seemingly taking on a mind of it’s own as it rushes through the grooves in the floor and into a hollowed out point where a mirror lies wedged into the stone.
The blood runs along the mirror, obscuring it for a moment.
She waits for it to settle before placing her hands through the blood and onto the freezing surface of the mirror as an image forms in her minds’ eye.

The smile that breaks is cold, and the laugh that follows would send shivers down even the bravest man’s spine.
She stands, a small wave of dizziness from the blood loss strikes but she shrugs it off as she strides out of the chamber, her hands still dripping.

“Now we end this…”

This is from her epic fantasy based on the RP she hosts, and in this particular scene, she wanted to eliminate repetition while still making it clear that a blood ritual was taking place.

Editing with that in mind, resulted in these changes:

The walls still seem to weep both blood and water. The chamber is unnaturally cold and devoid of all living beings, save one. Rage radiates from her in waves.
She sits in the centre of the circle, her golden eyes flashing a crimson red as she slashes a thin blade across her wrist, allowing blood to flow freely into the engravings on the floor.
Words spill from her lips as she chants,

Ar durmista arivae adon drannor alu kel-aeiou
Elda firya nisse neer lav-na
Lusta merke firya lav-na na sermo
Ilya nuquerna naikelea kara
Ilya ilya kelva kotumo nuru

She seals the wound and watches the liquid as it seems to take on a mind of its own, rushing through the grooves to a hollow point where a mirror lies wedged into the stone.
It pools there, obscuring the glass for a moment.
She waits for it to settle before sinking her hands into the fluid to rest on the freezing surface, an image forming in her mind’s eye.

The smile that breaks is cold, and the laugh that follows would send shivers down even the bravest man’s spine.
She stands, shrugging off the small wave of dizziness caused by her blood sacrifice before she strides out of the chamber, hands still dripping.

“Now we end this…”

The change from bold to italics for the chant is deliberate, since bold text implies a louder volume, and that wasn’t the effect needed here. Additionally, the use of alliteration and stronger adjectives to describe her actions and appearance in the first and last paragraphs gives the impression of controlled rage.

Read it aloud

Editing to show instead of tell can be a tricky skill to master, but it’s certainly not impossible. Another way to determine whether your writing is doing this, is to read it aloud. If it’s telling, it will sound longer and more awkward than if it’s showing. This is generally because every aspect is described in minute detail, often unnecessarily.

A final word on “show, don’t tell.”

Everyone’s styles will vary, and showing for one writer, may be very different to another’s. If you ask an editor or fellow writer for help with edits, remember that their suggestions will likely be based on their preferred style. That doesn’t mean that your original story is no good, so take what you feel is useful to you, and discard the rest. In the end, it’s your story and you need to be comfortable with the way it’s being shown.

*How do you edit to show, instead of tell? Any tips or advice – drop them in the comments! We’d love to hear them.*

3 Thoughts on “Editing: Enrich your story by showing not telling”

  • Very goοd blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m hߋping to start my own websitе soon ƅut I’m a ⅼittle ⅼost on everything.
    WoulԀ you propose starting with a fгee platform like Ꮃordprеѕs or go for a paid option?
    Tһere are so many choices out there that I’m completely
    overwheⅼmed .. Any ideas? Bless you!

    • Hi there!

      I think wherever possible when starting out, the idea is to save money, not spend it. However there are both pros and cons to this way of thinking.

      WordPress is great because it’s user friendly and free, but that also limits you in your website design options. If you just want to create a blog, then WordPress is definitely a great option because it’s so widely used and new bloggers are constantly finding your site.

      You can also take a look at Happy Writing’s Easy Author Website options, which are great if you’re just starting out and feeling a bit overwhelmed.

      https://easyauthorwebsite.com/

      Good luck!

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