“Show, don’t tell” is a piece of writing advice that I’ve heard often. Directed at me, at others, in writing workshops and classes, at uni, and online. And while there is some contention as to how helpful this piece of advice is, I used it this week to devise an editing technique that I found exceptionally useful, and so I thought I would tell you, dear reader, about it.
I have been editing my novel over recent weeks, in preparation to submit it to The Ampersand Project. In order to do this, I revisited it after about three months of not thinking about it, read it, did a complete edit then asked a few people to read it for me with the plan to then edit it again with their feedback.
Two of my lovely readers gave me the same piece of feedback. Tom, my main character, thinks too much. That it slows down the action and verges on neurosis. Fair. As much as I had thought that Tom’s thinking reflected the way my own brain works, I guess no-one would actually want to read a transcript of my rambling thoughts. So in amongst the feedback was, again, show, don’t tell.
So I went back to my novel and I was thinking about what is meant by show, don’t tell; how while thoughts and narration have their place (this is prose fiction, after all), there is poetry to the understated action, the ‘spoken’ word, the space behind what is being said and done, or what is not said and done. So I had to separate the showing from the telling, which is where I developed this editing technique.
I went through an entire chapter at a time, changing the font colour of everything that wasn’t an action, speech or a physical description to the palest grey on offer. This way, I could go back and read just the movement, speech and visuals only without worrying that I’d deleted anything. It was really interesting to see the same scenes I’d written in a completely different light. Almost like reading a play. It was ‘the showing’.
Then, I went back through and changed all that grey-white text to blue (or any colour, really) so that it still stood out from the showing. Then, reading each blue part on it’s on, within the context of the action happening around it, I was able to see that, yes, that extensive paragraph of Tom thinking could be reduced to two sentences with the same effect. Or Tom thinking about that particular event could be changed to a conversation with the other character present that not only tells us the same information, but also gives us insight into the relationship of these two along with some of their history of talking about this same topic previously.
It was so exciting and motivating to discover this way of editing that I worked my way through the whole of the problem areas of my novel and finished feeling that I’d done more good in two days than I had in the previous four weeks of editing. I then went an applied the same technique to a short story I’ve had floating around and felt that I’d made that many times better too.
So there you are, an editing tip for any who may be interested. Feel free to share it with others. It’s reinvigorated my own writing majorly.