You only have to be a writer for about five minutes before someone shares that time-tested wisdom of “show don’t tell.” Show don’t tell. Right. Yep. *emphatic nod*
But when it comes to editing our own writing, it can be difficult to recognize where we’re telling, not showing. As writers, we inherently have creative minds, so we can easily envision a scene that we’ve written, even if, on the page, we’re only telling.
A Simple Test
Here’s a super simple way to find some of the sentences in your writing that tell: search for the word “was.”
Take, for instance, a few sentences that tell:
- The moon was shining down on the farm.
- From behind the fence, the dog was barking.
- It was cold.
Those are all pretty boring sentences that tell us what’s happening, but show us nothing.
Show Don’t Tell
But fear not! You can pretty easily transform those uninspired lines into more compelling sentences by rewriting to exclude the word “was.”
- The gentle light of the moon collected in the leaves of the diminutive strawberry plants.
- From behind the fence, the dog defended his territory with a ferocious bark.
- She wrapped her scarf a second time and ducked her chin into the warmth it provided.
This little trick is by no means fool-proof. Sentences without the word “was” can also be guilty of telling (for example: The moon shone down.), but it’s a good place to start.
What I would not advise is trying to avoid the word “was” in your first drafts. In fact, I have found that my crappy first drafts flow much easier when I embrace “was.” I use the word almost as a tag. It’s dull and generic, but it allows me to get the main idea on paper knowing that I will absolutely come back and make it beautiful at a later date.
An Interesting Experiment
I invite you to give it a try. I know that the first time I did a search for the word I was absolutely shocked to see how many times it appeared on the pages of my writing.
Do you have a trick you use to highlight telling prose?