A master class in writing with only one advice — for copywriters and writers of fiction alike
There are a million and one things going into good writing, but one stands out. Hint: it’s not telling.
Whether you are a writer of fiction or a copywriter: this masterclass is for you.
I will cover the one thing separating great writers from the rest of us, the one thing a lot of professional writers think they know but don’t master.
Many might take it, few will pass. But I promise, if you take it and practice the world of words are yours to play with.
To develop our understanding of this master principle of writing we need to begin elsewhere. Think for a minute about what you did for the first five minutes after you got out of bed this morning. Maybe you made your bed, woke your kids up and boiled five eggs, or maybe you smoked two cigarettes and discovered a tattoo on your left hand that wasn’t there yesterday. Now think. Do you see your morning?
In this moment, there is a gap between you and me when it comes to your morning. You have seen something in the world that I have not.
Writing is simply a way of overcoming this gap. Writing is nothing more than you showing me what it is you have seen that i have not.
To overcome this gap you have tools in the form of letters. By themselves they are nothing, but combined they have the power to create peace and war, heaven and hell. Master the art of combining letters and you have power.
The one thing
An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.
- Stephen King
There are a million and one things going into good writing, but one stands out: the ability to show. Don’t tell me about your morning, show it.
Don’t write to tell, write to show.
You probably already heard this. But have you taken it to heart? Unless your name is Stephen King, chances are you haven’t.
Show me what you mean. Let me experience the story myself. Showing is much more interesting in writing than telling. If you show someone something, and they see it, they are more likely to remember it and believe it.
This has been expressed again and again by some of the greatest writers of history, but maybe Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was first when he wrote:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass […] In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.
Showing sounds intuitive and easy, but it’s not. Telling is probably one of the hardest habits to get rid of from your style. So don’t beat yourself up if you struggle with it. Most writers do.
5 ways to develop your show-skills
Let’s look at ways to show more and tell less, whether you are a copywriter or a writer of fiction (if you want to learn more about the art of showing i recommend Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin).
1. Be careful with adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs, when overused, create boring texts. Just look at this example from fiction writing:
She ran quickly through the forest when she heard a terrible growling voice.
A better way of writing it would be:
She raced through the forest when she heard a growl.
The second version is cleaner, more intense, more vivid and easier to see in your mind’s eye.
Let’s look at an example from the world of copywriting:
Our amazing team happily produces highly unique work.
This is of course how most people write when they want to tell the world how good something is. But do you get the feeling of quality when you read it? How about this instead:
Our team produces work that you can’t find anywhere else.
I’m not saying it’s the perfect line of copy, but it’s not totally shit.
2. Skip the qualifiers
Qualifiers are adjectives and adverbs such as “rather” or “a little”. They soften the words they modify and don’t belong in written prose.
She was rather upset with him and a little fed up with the situation.
Is weaker than:
She was upset with him and fed up with the situation.
It’s actually hard to get a mental picture of someone being a “little fed up” instead of just fed up.
3. Do this exercise
There is an exercise from Le Guins book that I recommend:
“Write a paragraph to a page of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue. The point is to give a vivid description of a scene or an action using only verbs, nouns, pronouns, and articles.”
What happens when you force yourself to skip the adjectives and adverbs can be magical.
4. Be specific
Another trick you need to learn is to be more specific. Look at this:
She went to Stockholm, got to the her hotel and sat down exhausted on the bed.
And now this:
She boarded the morning flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm. From her window she saw Holland shrink and soon enough Sweden grow as the plane hit ground with a thud. After picking up her bags she saw a man with her name on a sign, jumped into his taxi and watched him navigating the streets of Stockholm all the way to her Hotel. She paid him, closed the door behind her and entered the … you get my point.
The first sentence is time effective but it doesn’t show. If you want to show you have to take your time, not always, but sometimes.
5. For the love of god, don’t show it all
Since showing takes time no writer can show it all. You need to make choices on two levels.
- Choose what events to show in your story.
- Choose what to show within each event.
Let’s say that you are going to write about your dental fear. Instead of writing about all the times you visited the dentist you choose the event where the fear fist showed itself.
Then, instead of showing everything about that situation you pick out the things that are important, and trust the reader to piece the puzzle together. Like this:
Every time the nurse called out another name the boy twitched, eyes locked on his shoes, his hands moving around in his pockets.
These details show me, the reader, a person in fear. As a reader I can solve the problem even though it isn’t spelled out. Humans are born problem solvers, we are compelled to deduce and to deduct because that is what we do all the time. It’s this well organized absence of information that draws us in like a magnet. Compare with this:
The boy was sitting there, afraid, waiting for his dentist.
That is not showing, but telling. There is no problem for the brain to solve there, nothing to drag your reader in.
To summarize: develop the skill to show by practicing:
- being careful with adjectives and adverbs
- skipping qualifiers
- Being specific
- choosing what to show.
Best of luck!