Show Me, Don’t Tell Me. . .

~ By Nan Reinhardt

I’ve been writing this week and that’s a very good thing. This is only big news because I haven’t been writing for a while. I’d allowed the editing gigs and the rest of my life to take over. But for the last week, I’ve been writing and editing and rewriting and editing again… And then it’s time to turn the finished chapters over to my critique partner.

One of the most difficult things for me to do is release my work to my critique partner, Sandy. Not because she’s unkind. She’s terrific and always gracious even when she has to shred my work. She’s amazing—a prolific writer, who’s had several novels published and continues to crank out great work endlessly. She writes romance too, as well as other genre fiction, but she just seems to be able to simply sit down and write—words pour out of her like water pours over Niagara Falls. I’m both envious and very impressed. She just had a book accepted at Harlequin’s Carina Press and I couldn’t be prouder if it were my own book. I want to be like Sandy when I’m a grown-up author.

Another area of writing that can often cause difficulty for novelists is knowing how many words to write. As this advice article discusses, different genres have unique requirements where the word count is concerned, and it can be tricky to get things right. This is precisely why sending your work to an editor can be so beneficial.

Although I clutch when I send her my work, I know it will come back to me with clear, thoughtful edits that will make me a better writer. Sandy knows my strengths and weaknesses and never fails to point out both. She understands how, even though I make my living as a copyeditor, when I write, I am so caught up in the storytelling that punctuation becomes secondary. She graciously corrects that kind of stuff, but concentrates more on the story itself. Often a “Too funny!” or “Love this!” comment shows up next to a scene she really likes.

But just as frequently, I get “Show me!” Then I have to take a deep breath, get rid of whatever dull, passive description I’ve used, and create a scene where my reader can see the action, feel the emotion, or be right there in the situation. Showing, not telling has been one of my hardest lessons as a writer, but I couldn’t have a better teacher. Sandy makes me stretch and use my vocabulary to create characters and scenes that are strong and interesting. I’m growing as a writer thanks to her. She challenges me like no creative writing teacher ever has and I love her for that. I know that when I do get published—and I will be published—part of the credit will go to Sandy for forcing me to show, not tell


To the writers in the audience: What does “show not tell” mean to you? Is it a challenge, or does it come naturally to you? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!

Nan Reinhardt is a romance writer. She’s also a wife, a mom, a mother-in-law, and grandmother to one aging bunny and a golden retriever named, Lily. She’s been an antiques dealer, a bank teller, a stay-at-home mom, a secretary, and for the last fifteen years, she’s earned her living as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader. But writing is her first and most enduring passion. She has completed two novels and they are currently with her agent, Maureen Walters, of Curtis Brown Literary Agency in New York. Like Jo March (Little Women), she writes late at night in her upstairs garret, after the editing gig work is finished for the day and her household is asleep.

3 thoughts on “Show Me, Don’t Tell Me. . .”

  1. I really struggled with this one too, although after frequent scolding by various 1st readers, I think I’ve *finally* mostly got it down.

    And my critique partner is worth her weight in gold 🙂

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed that your two finished books find a good home soon!

  2. Great advice, Robena! My current WIP is in first person–my first attempt. Sandy keeps me grounded and helps me when I get off-track. First person is easier in some ways and harder in others. You’re in the character’s head and easy to info dump because you’re there, you tell everything…we’re always learning, aren’t we?

    Thanks for coming by!

  3. Hi Nan:
    I’m like you, no matter how hard I edit a piece, I still have a gut-clenching reaction as I send the work off to my crit partner. And she’s fabulous. It’s good to know that an editor struggles too. : )

    I’ve struggled with “show not tell” for years. I finally found a way around it with some good advice from Jenny Crusie. I write in third person limited POV. She suggested that when I’m struggling, to write the scene in first person, and then rewrite it in third. When I take the time to get centered and really stay in the moment, I’m aware of writing in the story’s now time, when I wander, (as I am known to do) then I can end up with passive wording, or too much telling.

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