On showing, not telling, and other tips for new writers

Jul 13

As of mere moments ago, I am officially 20,000 words into my novel. Well, 20,001 if you want to get technical. Now, that really doesn’t mean a whole lot since a story is a story regardless of word count, but I’d say that based on where I am in the plot that puts me about a third of the way there. So, as one-third of a writer, I feel confident in saying I’ve already learned quite a few things about the writing process. Here are the most important things I’ve learned so far.

1. Show, don’t tell.

You’ve probably heard this one before. It’s the tragedy that befalls most new writers — myself included — and one that I have to constantly remind myself of (and be reminded of by others, as well). As readers, we want to be engaged in the story, to experience it as the protagonist does. We don’t want to hear about all of the exciting things that have happened in retrospect, or have them glossed over in summary. We crave action and dialogue and things that keep us sucked in. We want to be shown what is happening as it happens, not told about it from a distant perspective.

Most recently, I wrote a scene that summarized an interaction that my main character has with another person in the town she lives in. Originally, I wrote something like this:

Of course, not everyone was eyeing me with hostility. I had barely made it back across the street before I was stopped by an old acquaintance of Gran’s, an elderly woman I had seen maybe twice before in my life. She made idle conversation for a few minutes before finally getting down to it, and I used the time to steel myself against the question I knew would be coming. It didn’t feel good, having to refuse her request for money, and I almost faltered against her pleading. If she hadn’t referred to Micah as “Michael”, I might even have given in.

When my friend Ai Rei read over the scene, however, she made one large, glaring comment with the Notes function in Word: why are you telling instead of showing? I realized I had fallen victim to the classic mistake, and was being a lazy writer. I revised the passage into a legitimate scene involving dialogue, action, and real-time witnessing of the events, and I feel that it’s a much more engaging moment because of it.

2. Don’t overuse dialogue tags.

He said, she said, they shout, I scream. Dialogue tagging is an obviously integral but often abused part of writing. They are necessary to make clear who is speaking at a given time, but they also can easily serve to slow down the reader when used in excess. Whenever possible, just leave them out. Utilize action instead to illustrate who is speaking if it might not be immediately clear. From the opening line of my book, for example:

“Where are you going?” Micah says, his voice heavy with sleep.

To me, is not as strong as:

“Where are you going?” Micah’s voice, heavy with sleep, seeps out his half-open door.

With the second, not only is it clear that it’s Micah who is speaking WITHOUT the actual use of the word “says” or a variant thereof, but I’m also able to illustrate setting in the same breath.

3. Write down ideas immediately.

This is also something you may have heard before: keep a notebook handy so you can jot down ideas as you get them. This is one of those tips I usually would roll my eyes at. Surely I’d be able to remember my own brilliant idea, right? Wrong. When it comes to the brilliant twists, turns, and setting elements of my own novel, it would seem I have the memory of a hummingbird. As I’ve worked out a lot of details about the plot and world I’ve created when either A) speaking to someone else, or B) lying in bed before I fall asleep, I rarely have pen and paper in hand to write down my thoughts. The thing is, the minute I walk away from that person, or by the time I’ve woken up the next morning, the idea is most likely gone.

Just do it. Keep the Notes app on your iPhone open or keep a pile of notecards in your purse. Even if you feel silly, just do it. Last night, I forced myself to throw back the covers and write down something I thought of because I just knew it would be gone by morning. And starting tonight, I’ll be keeping a pen and notecard on my nightstand.

4. Stop revising-as-you-go.

This is hands-down the hardest thing I’m experiencing. I open my computer to write, and I scroll up to remind myself of where I am in the story. No problem, right? Only, my eye catches on some phrasing, so I change it. And then that reminds me something else, so I scroll up to an earlier chapter, and have to add/alter/delete something there. And before I know it, I’ve spent an hour revising and the story has not moved on at all.

Revising is a necessary part of writing, obviously. Nobody here is saying otherwise. But it becomes a huge waste of my time when I’m revising and revising and revising things that will probably only get revised AGAIN when I’ve finished the book. I’m trying to force myself not to go back into what I’ve already written and change things unless it’s for a very specific purpose. For example, if I’m writing about something and it occurs to me that it would be better if there was a tiny mention of it earlier in the book, it’s okay for me to go back and add that in. But what I should NOT do is begin reading forward from that point and start editing and changing things just because in that moment I’m not happy with the way it reads. Save that for the editing stage, woman!

5. Storyboard.

I’ve gone through a quite few techniques now in terms of setting up outlines and timelines and generally trying to organize the general plot of my novel. Thanks to my friend Ai Rei, a fellow aspiring novelist herself, I’m finally convinced that the way that works best for me is to storyboard.

I jot down plot point, character ideas, facts about the setting, and other miscellaneous things on notecards, and tape them to the back of my door. Each color represents one of those categories (er, except when it’s dark and green looks like blue. Oh well.). Because they’re movable, I can adjust/remove/add to individual points without having to start from scratch (the way that I would with a mind map written on paper, for example), and it feels more legitimate than a soft document on my computer or writing on an erasable whiteboard would. I respond well to the visual stimuli, too.

Obviously, everybody works differently, but consider this is my recommendation for this particular method.

And there you have it! My 5 tips for new writers, or at least for one-third-of-the-way-there new writers. On we go!



  1. Glad to know that the storyboard method (or “Wall of Insanity” as I call it) is helping you out. As we spoke before, creating a story is like building a puzzle, not everything fits where you think it should at first.

    Cheers to us aspiring writers! Writing is hard, but don’t ever give up! 😀

  2. Terry Williams /

    Hey Gretchen. I just finished my first novel, Cooper’s Revenge, and am trying to find a Literary Agent. One of the best things I ever did before I sat down and started writing, was to take an on-line course withe Long Ridge Writer’s Group. They have a great curriculum and pair you up with an established author as a mentor to get you over the rough spots. Check them out! Good luck with your writing. I read your blog occasionally and enjoy your narrative. Keep it up!

    • admin /

      Thanks for the tip, Terry! I will absolutely look into that!

  3. I love your thoughts, but have to disagree with number two. Most writers reccommend sticking to simple dialogue tags like “he said.” I think your first sentence is much more clear, and thus better

  4. I can’t agree enough with your “write down ideas as they come” tip – I am always forgetting the pieces of my ideas but remembering just enough to be frustrated that I can’t remember the rest. Bah!

  5. I have a hard time writing without editing. It’s a really bad habit that I’m working on quitting. I end up doing more harm than good. Editing interrupts the writing process, and I have lost my train of thought many times.

  6. Congrats! Doesn’t it feel great! I eventually went the Indie publishing route with Cooper’s revenge and have had a lot of fun with it. Aside from Create Space, have you looked into getting a POD account with Lightning Source? They are an imprint for Ingram and are the go to printers for most of the publishing industry. I had to form an LLC, First Coast Publishers, because they only deal with publishers, not authors. It gives me a lot of flexibility to get wholesale prices on books for book signings and to get into their catalog in the event some of their distributors might want to pick me up. Check it out!

    • Thank you! I haven’t looked into Lightning Source but have definitely heard a lot about them. I also formed an LLC for my “publisher” (which is, errr, just me, hahaha) but since I already have that, I will absolutely look into what you suggest.

      Thank you!

  7. Also check out Smashwords.com. Interesting medium for flogging your stuff.

    Hey you might want to correspond with my mentor from Long Ridge, Mary Rosenblum, a Science Fiction writer out of Portland, Oregon. She’s amazing and has been out there in print for years.

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