The first time someone told me, “show, don’t tell,” I had no idea what they were talking about. Show what? Isn’t writing, by its very nature, telling?
I was a young writer and didn’t yet understand the many elements of good writing. But I kept hearing that advice over and over: show, don’t tell.
Then, one day, it clicked. I got it. To tell was to write a synopsis. To show was to write a scene, to take readers through the events with action, dialogue, and detail. Show, don’t tell. Of course. It was so obvious.
Now every time I read that advice, I have to smile.
You Can’t Have Too Many Writing Tips
Learning often happens through repetition. The first time we hear something, we forget it almost immediately. Through review and repetition, we eventually memorize new information.
There is an infinite number of writing techniques and skills that the most advanced writers have mastered. We can’t expect to get our writing right the first time around, and we can’t expect to master all those techniques and skills as soon as we become privy to them.
You can’t collect too many writing tips, and you can’t brush up on your techniques and skills too often. In that spirit, I bring you fifteen quick and dirty writing tips. These are just the headlines, designed to jog your memory and remind you of all the writerly things we should be doing at any given time.
Quick and Dirty Writing Tips
This list includes a mix of some of my favorite writing tips and some of the tips I think are most essential:
- Read as much as you can (and make sure you read good stuff).
- Write every day — practice makes perfect.
- Acquire some resources: dictionary, thesaurus, style guide, grammar handbook, and books on writing.
- Join or start a writers’ group and get feedback on your work.
- Lower your expectations and allow yourself to write badly. It’s better to write crap than to write nothing at all.
- Feeling uninspired? Writer’s block is no excuse; find some writing prompts and exercises. Use them.
- Do you want to write a novel? Launch a blog? Submit your poetry? Set clear, achievable goals and then get busy reaching them.
- Be yourself. You have your own voice; let people hear it. Don’t compare everything you write to more successful writers. They started somewhere too.
- Tell your inner editor to take a vacation. Let yourself write freely and creatively. You can always edit and revise later.
- Get organized. All those notes and journals, and all that research! Binders, notebooks, and computer files. Put things in order so you can find what you need when you need it.
- Pay attention to your language: word choice and sentence structure can mean the difference between an award-winning novel and a book that sits on a shelf collecting dust (poetry exercises are great for developing language skills).
- Know your audience. Write for them using language they understand.
- Be creative and take risks. You’ll never know unless you try.
- Revise, edit, proofread, and polish everything you write before anyone else sees it!
- Show, don’t tell (you knew that was coming).
Do you have any writing tips to add to this list? If so, then leave a comment. And keep writing!
The best tip I ever received was – ‘write, even when you don’t feel like it.’ You might not feel like writing at the time but the very act of putting pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard activates your writing muscles.
Thanks for your tips.
I agree with that advice. When you don’t feel like writing, it’s easy to blow it off (especially if you’re not getting paid for it), but it’s best practice to show up every day whether you feel like it or not.
Great tips here. It’s always good to be reminded of the basics every now and then.
Thanks, Alana. I find that I need to revisit the basics from time to time and figured other writers do too.
My biggest tip–I’d be lost without my to-do list. Every time I sit down for a writing session, I outline exactly what I want to get accomplished. I usually keep the list to around five items, since anything much longer can be discouraging. It keeps me on track and makes it easier for me to control time-wasters like email and social media.
I’m so dependent on my to-do list, and not just for writing. I use it to keep track of everything I need to do, from work-related tasks to simple errands. I don’t know what I’d do without it!
I’ve often been told to carry a writing utensil and small notebook, sticky notes, notepad, etc. in each purse, one never knows when the next great idea will hit and it doesn’t hurt to always be prepared.
I agree, and I always carry a little notebook and a pen. However, a smart phone can serve the same function, so if you ever forget your notebook, you can make a note in your phone or send yourself a voice mail!
I SO agree with this advice! So many times while having coffee at our local coffeehouse a really great idea comes into my so-called mind and it upsets me no end when I can’t find anything to write on or with! ~Sharon
I tried to do that once, but then I realized that I could just use the memo pad on my phone.. It’s always with me and saves space in my bag 🙂
Yeah, being prepared never hurts. 100% agree with you on that!
Nice, Melissa. I would like to add to the “show, don’t tell” mantra the following. Showing is allowing the readers to conclude what’s going on, by engaging them through emotional stimuli. Telling is making that conclusion for them. Now it becomes clear why showing is it gives the readers the feeling they are in control of what to think/feel.
Good fiction, however, balances the two imho. Showing takes more energy from the reader than telling.
Oh well, if it were easy, anybody could do it.
“Show, don’t tell” is definitely one of the most important writing practices for young and new writers to learn, and one that many have a difficult time with at first (but easily master once they grasp its meaning). Thanks!
So how does one get started on the writing path? What is an appropriate place to begin? I’ve tried keeping a journal, but it always comes out more like a diary and I hate the outcome. I have gotten back into reading in the past year, but I’m a slow reader.
I’ve always been told that my writing (for work — mktg copy) is very good and concise, but it doesn’t come easy to me. I dabbled in poetry in high school (teacher also told me I had written some of the best student poetry he’d read), and always did well in English — grade school through college, but I’ve never really thought I had what it takes to be a GOOD writer. An interesting writer. A writer with something relevant to say. Any advice you can offer would be most appreciated!
To get started on the writing path, don’t worry about being a GOOD writer. Just be a writer. Even if you’re a slow reader, it’s essential that you read as much as you can. If you can set aside 30 minutes a day for reading and 30 minutes for writing, you’ll make good progress. I wish you the best of luck!
“Make sure you read good stuff”: not necessarily… sometimes I better understand my mistakes when I see them on others’ novels.
That’s interesting. I find that mistakes in novels serve as a good reminder to check and double-check and to remember that typos almost always slip through (they even get past some of the most experienced editors, as I’ve seen in published books).
Sorry, Melissa. Is it once again the difference between my Australian English and your American English?
In my view, under the heading “You can’t have too many writing tips”, your sentence that began, ‘There are an infinite number of writing techniques ……’ surely should have read, ‘There is an infinite number of writing techniques……’.
‘Number’ is surely a singular noun, not a plural.
What do you say?
Good catch! It’s fixed now. Thanks.
Great tips. Before I start writing I close my eyes to see and feel my characters for sometime. Visualization Works well with me. I am a banker and I write during nights. I observe people closely and while at work the author within me keep working in mind. Thoughts spill on paper eventually.
I use actors for most of my characters. It helps me visualize them, and sometimes a role the actor has played or the actor’s personality will inform the character’s traits and behaviors. Sometimes I can’t find an actor, so I’ll use musicians and other public figures. It’s immensely helpful for visualization.
I agree: One cannot have too many writing tips, be they advice or writing instruments (I enjoyed your image). I am collecting novels and writing books with obsessive speed, as well as reading blogs and online articles. There is so much to learn—I am a new writer—and I want to learn it all, right now. My dilemma is what to read first, where to focus my learning energy at any given time. Thanks for sharing these tips in one list.
It’s so exciting to be at the beginning of the writing adventure. I love that you’re eager to learn, but be sure to enjoy the journey and the excitement of learning new things and making new discoveries about the craft and your own work.
For your number one tip, you say, “Read as much as you can (and make sure you read good stuff).” A great tip, but how does one know which books are ‘good stuff’? One can spend a lot of time and money trying to find worthwhile reads nowadays.
By “good stuff,” I mean written works that have already proven themselves…the classics, books that have a lot of critical or fan acclaim. A lot of the staples are the same books taught in high schools and colleges from Shakespeare to The Grapes of Wrath to To Kill a Mockingbird. Check for awards or recommendations that come from trusted experts. But don’t avoid the best-seller lists either–it’s not a bad idea to know what appeals to the mainstream reading audience. A word of caution: be aware of how best-seller lists are developed (there are all kinds of rules about what can and can’t make the lists) and how awards are granted.
Great reminders! Saving and sharing… Thanks.
Here’s a quote by Octavia Butler I read every morning. It never fails to get me writing.
“Write everyday whether you feel like it or not. Screw inspiration!
It’s certainly not a matter of sitting there and having things fall from the sky.”
Excellent quote. Thanks for sharing it, Sharon.
Great tips. We hear them all the time, but it’s great to be reminded, and to have them all in one place, too.
I’m writing every day, though I certainly don’t feel like it at the moment – I seem to be going through an uninspired phase at the moment. It’s actually painful squeezing out these horrid clunky sentences, and I feel as if I’m writing like Philboyd Studge (to quote Kurt Vonnegut).
Whether to write every day really depends on your goals. Some people write for fun, and maybe they don’t need to write every day. However, it’s definitely a good habit for building writing skills, especially if you want to finish writing projects. The funny thing is that a lot of writers find that even though they don’t really feel like writing, once they open their document (or notebook) and get started, they get into it. Sometimes you just need to make yourself sit down and write those first few sentences!