Thursday, 4 May 2017

Book Review: Understanding Show, Don't Tell: and Really Getting It

I like to read books about writing craft every so often. It keeps me learning and improving both as a writer and as an editor. Often it gives me the explanations and vocabulary for things that I've known instinctively but haven't been able to explain to others.

One of the best books I've read recently is by Janice Hardy, called Understanding Show, Don't Tell: And Really Getting It.

'Show, don't tell' is perhaps the most common piece of writing advice, and when we 'get' it, and do it, our writing is a lot better. But what does it really mean to 'show' rather than 'tell'? Do we always understand it? And are we able to recognise it in our own writing - and know how to fix it?

A number of my editing customers are still learning the idea of showing, not telling, and I've struggled to explain the 'whys' and 'hows' of it to them, even while I've been able to say, 'Yeah, nah, that doesn't work'.

Now, though, I have the tools to explain it. I love this book so much I'm even recommending it on my website.

Hardy lays the whole thing out incredibly simply. The blurb for her book says that she 'takes you deep into one of the most frustrating aspects of writing--showing, and not telling. She'll help you understand what show, don't tell means, teach you how to spot told prose in your writing, and reveal why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.' And it's absolutely true.

Possibly the most practical aspect of Hardy's book is her list of 'Red Flag' words; clues as to whether or not your prose is telling or showing.

Here are a few:

Emotional tells:
in [fear]
with [relief]
felt [emotion]

If you're reading this list thinking, 'but hey, I use those words all the time', I've probably piqued your curiosity.

I don't have room or time to explain the whys or wherefores of them in one small blog post, but I do suggest that all writers go get themselves a copy of Janice's book, because it is in depth, clever, practical and enjoyable.

And it will clear up all the questions you ever had about Show, Don't Tell.

Cecily Paterson writes middle grade fiction for girls. She also does editing. Check her out at 


  1. Thanks, Cecily. That's a useful list of red-flag words. I still find them - even in late edits of my work. This book sounds useful.

  2. Sounds like a great craft book, Cecily :)

  3. I've got this on my Kindle to read - I bought it on pre-order after seeing a post Janice Hardy wrote on adding narrative distance through POV (mostly through using those red flag words).

    I hear what you say about reading writing craft books to give you the vocabulary to explain what you've instinctively known was an issue. I also find the books useful for explaining what's wrong to editing clients (with the assurance that I'm not the only person who thinks this is an issue, and an explanation of why).