Mailbag: Writing in a Different Medium, Why ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is Hard

This week’s mailbag is all about what’s holding us back in writing, and a few tricky ways we can overcome these obstacles. In the first post, Write in a different medium, I discuss why writing by hand once in a while can actually change your thought process. And in another post, Why “Show, Don’t Tell” is so difficult, I discuss why we struggle so much to follow the oldest advice in the book for writers.

On “Write in a different medium“, Mary said:

When writing in longhand, I recommend using PENCILS–if you need to change just a word or two, it is much easier. I also recommend double-spacing your written lines. This leaves room for word/clause insertion in your handwritten lines.

When I needed to insert a passage in my handwritten stories, I put a reference in the main body such as “A-1.” I wrote out the passage in a separate binder (or binders) with the same reference symbol.

I like writing by hand–it is the only way I can write poetry. I cannot even imagine settling in with my laptop for a session of poem creation. It just does not fit.

Thanks, Mary. There are lots of ways we can edit more easily if we write a draft by hand; as a teacher, I still prefer grading papers on paper, for example, with lots of red marks and arrows and circles, even though word processing software now has all sorts of fancy commenting features. There’s nothing like the visual experience of moving and inserting paragraphs, or drawing little diagrams, or writing notes to ourselves in the margins. Handwriting can’t be beat for editing.

LeAnn said:

I loved your post. We forget how much personality can be included in our handwritten notes. Maybe we are losing a little bit of our “voice” in writing when we relegate ourselves to one type of medium?

I recently found a box of a bunch of handwritten stories in journals. I am currently trying to go through them and “edit” them with my laptop. It is funny that I could tell the type of mood I was in just from the way I was writing in those notebooks…not just the style, but the way I looped my letters or hurried through sentences. I can even remember where I was when I wrote certain passages. I kind of miss that….there are no “doodles” on the side of my writing on my laptop, or coffee stains on the paper because I feel asleep while writing.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, LeAnn. I couldn’t agree more — there is something inherently personal about handwriting that computer writing just can’t capture. I, too, can tell if I liked what I was writing or not when I look back at the pages. The handwriting is worse, more hurried, in passages I later changed or cut out — it’s almost as though I was reluctant to write it, or was just trying to get it over with. And the wonderful stories behind doodles and notes! I just acquired a book from my grandmother’s house that has a note written in it from my great-great grandfather, noting how he read this book aloud to his father when he was ill. What a wonderful bit of history I can get from these sorts of notes and asides.

Another popular post was my discussion of why “Show, Don’t Tell” is so darn difficult to obey. Lauren said,

My English teacher for my Creative Writing unit focused on a little aspect of the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule, which was adverbs – she made us do an exercise where we weren’t allowed to use them, which of course made us realise just how much we relied on them. She said of course we can use adverbs some of the time, but other times we should stop taking the easy way out and actually describe what it is that makes the man look like he is walking determinedly, or talking uncomfortably.

Great exercise, Lauren — I’ve done it myself with students! I was also trained that adverbs are crutch-like words that weaken our verbs. Strong verbs are really the key to putting your reader in the center of the action, and adverbs are more of a qualifier or an explainer, taking us out of the heat of the moment.

Jake Shirley said:

Excellent post. “Show, don’t tell” is such a short piece of advice and a lot of people who give it seem to think it’s easy. It’s one of the many things that are simply stated, but difficult to apply. Number one had the biggest impact on me. I’m very much a fledgling writer and I do feel the need to prove my stories to the reader and to myself, and to apologize if it doesn’t work. I’ll try to grow that backbone.

Number two also. One of the worst things I think, for me, would be the reader not getting it, or not understanding where I’m coming from. I’ll try to trust the reader to figure it out.

Thanks for your thoughts, Jake. I agree — I struggle most of all with confidence and self-assuredness in my writing, and it comes out as over-explaining. I want to show my reader how well I’ve thought everything out, instead of letting him figure that out himself. As for number two, I agree — I want to be in absolute control of what the reader is discovering about my story, and I don’t like the idea of him or her thinking about the story in a way I didn’t predict. I see myself doing this even when I’m reading aloud stories I haven’t written to family members. I like being in control of the story, and prefer being the reader to being read to. That way I can choose how the story gets presented. I think I could benefit from letting go a little, and letting the story work its own magic!

Thanks for the comments, readers and writers. Keep them coming, and I’ll see you here next week!


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