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Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

        I found a great article on Twitter (via Annie Neugebauer via Anne R. Allen) called “Why ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops” by Joshua Henkin, and it was just the thing I needed to read. In my forms of creative nonfiction class last semester we all came down with a bad case of the show-don’t-tells—the phrase was employed to fix everything from bad dialogue to grammatical errors (that’s an exaggeration, but it’s okay because creative nonfiction). However, the more the damned thing came up the more I wanted to call B.S., but I didn’t have the knowledge or words to do so. Thankfully, this article did all the work for me!

        So often inexperienced writers (myself included) think that good writing equals adjectives, and more often that’s just not the case. Henkin explains it this way:

I see it constantly among my students, who are nothing if not adjective-happy. Do we need to know that a couch is a “big brown torn vinyl couch”? We are writing fiction, not constructing a Mad Lib. Yet writers have been told to describe, and so they do, ad nauseum. It’s like the sentence that was popular in typing classes—“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.” Well, this is a good typing sentence (it contains every letter of the alphabet), but it’s a bad fiction sentence.

        Case in point: the first big assignment I had in my introduction to creative writing class was to write a prose piece (not exaggerating at all—that was literally the only requirement for the thing). I’m much more comfortable working with poetry than I am page-after-page of chunky text, but I tried my best and ended up with three vignettes about poor people being poor. Now, I could have gone on forever about the emotional toll that poverty can have on someone, but I didn’t; instead, I gave rambling descriptions of things. And not even important things—stuff like the texture of the adhesive on sticky notes or a gas station coffee machine. It was definitely not a high point for me, but it does exemplify the point Henkin was trying to make. Thankfully now I can usually catch myself before I wander into “big brown torn vinyl couch” territory.

        The article goes on to talk about more than just overzealous adjectivers, but this is what I think it all boils down to: we need to be more careful of what we allow into our writing. Sometimes we write terrible shit because we’re in a rush, and sometimes it’s because we’re in a rut, but regardless, it’s better to leave things unsaid then to say them like an amateur. 

If you don’t already follow me on twitter, you should! @jj_pennington I don’t tweet nonstop, and when I do I’m usually drunk! Everyone wins!

1 year ago
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