Outside of "write what you know," many creative writing teachers have the same piece of advice for aspiring writers: "show, don't tell."
For editors, it's easy to recognize the moments where writers are having a harder time with the story, where they're struggling with something that isn't quite working, and where the prose becomes stiff or dry. These are the moments when you're using description or exposition instead of action or dialogue in a scene. But when you're editing your own work, how do you recognize when you're telling instead of showing?
Five tips to keep in mind when revising your work
1. Use actions instead of words
If your character is describing what's happening instead of being in the action, take a step back and put them into the situation. Instead of saying “they were fighting,” describe the fight—every insult, every instance of physical interaction, all the gory details.
2. Use dialogue instead of description
The way we interact with one another can depict so much about our personalities. Do we hold back our thoughts? Are we boisterous and loud? Everyone is unique—your characters should be, too.
If two characters are having a conversation, but you're just describing it rather than letting each character speak for themselves, try writing it out as dialogue. This will immediately speed up the scene, get your readers engaged, and help you define your characters.
3. Try to avoid exposition
Sometimes it makes narrative sense to speed up the storytelling by summarizing different parts of your characters' lives. There isn't enough space in a typical novel to include every single detail of the days, weeks, months, and years of your character's history.
So, when making the decision to summarize, be sure to avoid impacting the action of your story or slowing down the plot. For anything taking place "off stage," try focusing on exposition for backstory alone and allow yourself the freedom to make sure the action is where you hold the reader's focus.
4. Plot first, description second
When you're revising your work, take a minute to focus on the elements of plot that are necessary to move your story forward. Make sure you don't impede your storytelling with too much unnecessary description. You want to make sure the focus stays on the action.
5. When in doubt, cut it out!
If you're unsure about whether you're telling rather than showing, chances are, you are. Try a little experiment: cut out the paragraph, the scene, or the description, and ask yourself if the story still makes sense. If it doesn't, then you'll know that it's extraneous and can probably go.