A Simple Show-Don’t-Tell Test

Show Don't TellYou 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?

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8 Responses to A Simple Show-Don’t-Tell Test

  1. Phil Cobb November 24, 2017 at 9:49 am #

    Another such word is “felt.” John felt tired. Mary felt sad.

    Having said that, telling is useful in moving the plot along to get to the dramatic showing points.

    Otherwise, if a person went hog wild on removing all telling, the manuscript could suffer from word bloat. Or perhaps from lurid over-description.

    The point is to learn the rules, then pick and choose one’s spots to break them.

    • April November 28, 2017 at 8:26 pm #

      Well said. I was just noticing how many times “felt” comes up in my own writing. I’ll be doing a word search for that one too. I also agree with choosing which rules to break when. As long as it’s a choice, not a mistake, it should serve the writing. Cheers!

  2. Chuck Rothman July 29, 2017 at 5:16 pm #

    Two points.

    1. Your first two sentences are as much telling as the originals, just in more words.
    2. Telling is not automatically bad, nor is showing automatically good. It’s always better to dramatize the work, of course, but there plenty of times when telling is more effective. For instance”

    “If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex.”
    “The words were gentle strokes, drawing her awake.”
    “When Patricia was six years old, she found a wounded bird.”
    “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday.”

    There are all opening sentences of recent award-winning fiction; all are telling, not showing.

    “Show don’t tell” is a guideline and a writer soon learns when it’s required and when it can be broken.

    • April July 31, 2017 at 6:48 am #

      I totally agree that telling is not always a bad thing. Especially in an opening sentence, you have to do some telling, to get your reader into the story, but your claim that my rewritten sentences are still “telling” gives me pause. While I suppose I am still telling a fact of the story, all written sentences tell something, by definition. My aim was to tell a snippet of information in a way that truly paints a picture with active verbs, which, in my mind, is thereby “showing.” I would love to hear how you define showing and telling. How would you, for instance, rewrite that first sentence?

  3. Rachel capps June 30, 2017 at 5:40 pm #

    I discovered this tip too. There were a few other words too like “could” and “would”. Found I was telling too much. I think it’s quite a skill to detect the telling and I have great respect for writers who have mastered this technique. I’m still developing it but gosh it’s fun!

    • April July 17, 2017 at 2:46 pm #

      Agreed, Rachel,
      It’s so hard to have that critical eye with our own work. I think it’s something we just have to be diligent about developing. (And heck yes, it is fun!)

  4. Sarala Kron March 26, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

    Great tip. I’m interested in scanning through my manuscript to see how many times it appears.

    • April March 27, 2017 at 9:07 am #

      I am always shocked, when I use the find function, to see all the little yellow squares highlighting “was” all over the page. Maybe it’s just me. Let me know how it goes for you.

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