The absolute most important rule

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the most important rule when writing either fiction or non-fiction

Show! Don’t Tell. Show, don’t tell. This is the most important rule of all when it comes to writing either fiction or non-fiction. Ok, I don’t really know this to be true, I have done no systematic writers rules analysis, but dude (or dudette) it is important. Here are a couple examples.

Suppose I am writing a fictional work, and my protagonist is angry with someone who is withholding information in a murder investigation. My protagonist knows this person has information, but he cannot prove it. I could write the following:

Petty Officer Bare was angry with Bell. In fact, he was so angry that he could bite nails in half.

In spite of the lame cliché this sentence does not really do too much for my novel. Now, I decide to show that Petty Officer Bare is angry, rather than simply telling you that he is angry.

Petty Officer Bare felt his jaw tighten. His muscles formed tight little knots and throbbed as blood flowed through them. His mouth filled with an iron metal flavor. Damn, he thought, bit my lip again. He spoke softly, and with deliberate punctuation, “Please tell me what you know about Petty Officer Powers murder.”

In Non-Fiction show don’t tell is even more important. How many hours have I wasted trying to find instructions for doing some simple task, and I constantly run across articles that say, “You can have your computer do this.” Ok, I think, and I read the article, but it never tells me HOW to make my computer do this or that. It simply tells me that such a thing is possible. For me these types of articles are worse than useless, they are actually a detriment because they clutter up search engine results, while providing little to the corpus of knowledge on a subject.

Am I being cruel? I don’t think so. Consider this, if I did not know that a particular thing was possible, then obviously I would not be searching for it. The way search engines work (at least today) is that they rarely return something that is not at least somewhat related to what I typed in. Therefore if I am searching for how to enable the screen saver on my computer, I do not need an article telling me that one of the great features of Windows is that I can set my own screen saver – I already know that. What I want to know is where do I go to enable this feature. In other words, show, don’t tell. With technical articles, blogs and books, this often takes the form of a series of screen shots. This is because, most actions on a computer now days, require an entire series of actions, not a simple point and click. At times, this becomes even more confusing because I need to download additional software or drivers, or turn on some obscure advanced feature first. Once again, Show, don’t tell. Show me how to get to the secret location, where I can enable the hidden feature, so that I can turn on the really useful feature.

I think, that with computers at least, many times at least, the problem may be that the writer does not know how to really do it. They made a change away from the default configuration, or installed updates, a long time ago. Therefore, it comes back to how many updates have been applied, how many tweaks have been made. Careful documentation on their part will help. Also create reference, baseline images of installations. Using these baseline images, try to enable the feature. Then document the sequence, and take lots of screen shots.

So, it may not be the most important rule, but Show! Don’t Tell, is certainly one that will transform your writing – regardless of your genre.

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