Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is It Too Much?

Every writing site seems to exhort 'show don't tell'. Now, I understand that action is better than passive description but some of the examples that are given strike me as florid.

What may be handicapping me is my 'less is more' philosophy gleaned from many years of working in the theatre as an actor and director. I find descriptions that go on for pages boring. When I'm the reader I skip them. I'm certainly not advocating a plain text book as that would be as dull as dishwater as well. But surely there's a happy medium. Descriptions of locations that actually describe the scene. Detail is fine, but I really don't need the poetry of every glistening raindrop as it trembles on a tender newly-unfurled leaf.

I could, of course, be completely wrong. Working on "The Watcher" has made me very aware of word choices and conveying a scene concisely is mandatory in a short story. However my history has shown me that my most constant revision in all of my work has been 'I've taken 15 words to say what I could have said in 7'.

Can 'less is more' be applied to writing? Or is it 'more is more'? What works for you?


  1. Definitely less is more. We need to "show, not tell" in as few words as possible. I'm famous among my critique groups for deleting as many unnecessary words as I can. It's good training to combat my own attacks of wordiness.

  2. Thanks, Patricia! I shall continue my ruthless editing!

  3. Thanks for stopping by my blog today, Elspeth. I'm hoping most people were distracted by the new banner photo and therefore skipped right over the stupid error in my title. It still amazes me how I can proofread things a dozen times, and still miss a goof like that.

  4. I almost always go for the "less is more" motto, with very, *very* few exceptions (like blogposting, haha!)

    I've read a few John Irving novels that I've found excessive in description (sorry, John) -- and yet, when I finished the book and looked back, I wondered what I would've had him take out had I been his editor. I couldn't make up my mind as to whether it was *really* needed. And yet, it also seemed to fit.

    You can do both. Showing vs. telling is not about wordiness as much as it is about sensory communication. You do it not to take up space but to give readers a temporal, spacial, and sensory experience. And you can achieve that clearly and concisely.

    Ooooh, I wanna go write now!!


  5. I am sick to death of hearing that showing is better than telling. I acknowledge it’s true. But, the show advocates don’t seem to want to believe there’s ANY value in telling.

    Sometimes, it’s simpler on the author AND the reader to just state a factoid in two or so sentences and move on. Why take two or more paragraph’s to show a small point when simply stating it will do the trick.

    I’ve done a bunch of book signings, book clubs “appearances” and generally interacted with readers extensively. I’ve never heard one reader comment on show vs tell. Never.

    Sometimes it seems like the writing community establishes this set of arcane rules and then revels in the delight of whipping one another with them.

    Yeah, showing is better. But telling is okay, too.

    Best Regards, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  6. Galen - I hear you. I agree.

    Elisa - I understand your point about sensory communication but I find as a reader that too often the writer has overdone it. Not everyone's senses are aflame 24 hours a day. Sometimes you just 'sit down' not 'collapse gratefully into the soft warm nest of Grandma's chair and cocoon with her rose and mint green afghan'.


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