Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Don't Rush to Judgment

One of the hardest things to do, in writing as in life, is to not judge. In writing, every time you express your opinion or judgment, you are robbing your reader of theirs. Think about it. If you are describing climbing Mount Everest, you could accurately describe it as difficult, challenging, painful, or exciting. But these are all your judgments. If you want your reader to truly understand how it is to climb Mount Everest, he or she must have an experience. They must feel the ice forming on their eyelashes and hear the crunch of frozen snow under their boots. Then they can form their own opinion that it is difficult, challenging, painful, or exciting.

Here’s a simple exercise in “Show Not Tell” that practices getting rid of judgment words and replacing them with experiential details. Describe a room in your house, perhaps the room you are sitting in now. Describe everything and anything in it – without using any adjectives or adverbs that imply opinion (such as pretty, or dirty, or jarring, or too anything). Use only words that cannot be disputed.

Here’s a room I wrote about: The sofa arms have been used as the cat’s scratching post. The once-white ceiling drops crumbly bits on the floor. A starling makes a blawk blawk sound from her nest in the eaves just outside the window. There is a smell of leftovers in the air.

Do I really have to say that the person describing this room thinks the room is unkempt and lonely?

I love exercises that make me go back to basics. It reminds me to keep my beginner’s mind, so I will see things as though it is the first time.

~~~~~~~~
Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit http://www.primary-sources.com/.
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16 comments :

  1. Good, good, good! I'm going to use this as a writing prompt today.

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  2. This is a great reminder. Less is often more.

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  3. Great writing exercise. It makes you become more aware of the overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Less is often more.

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  4. Great thoughts, Kim. Really easy for me to get my head around.

    EJ

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  5. What a simple way of explaining "show don't tell". Very profound.

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  6. Well said, and a great way to go about explaining the show vs. tell argument.

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  7. This looks like a good exercise. You might not want to describe everything in the room, because the idea isn't to do an inventory. You want to convey a sense of place. That drop of blood in the sink might be all you need to know about the bathroom. The curdled cream in the coffee cup, the grime on the keyboard, or the graphic photo on the monitor will tell a lot.

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  8. When I began reading this piece my mind started racing. "I know," I thought. "I hate it when someone else sees a movie or reads a book and they have to tell me whether it was any good before I can form my own opinion." (Yes, BFF Ellen, I was thinking of you.) Especially if I'm told it was wonderful, because that sets the bar so high I often start looking for something wrong instead of enjoying the sense of discovery.

    Then when I got to the second paragraph I realized you weren't talking about that at all.

    But then when I finished, I thought, you know what? It's kind of the same thing.

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  9. Like others have said already, your post is an excellent piece of advice and a good writing exercise. I had been looking for a good exercise to generate a blog post on and I'm glad I didn't have to go far.

    Thank you!

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  10. This is a valuable post, Kim. Your little exercise addresses the complexities of "show don't tell" in a simple, straightforward way. We all need to keep this information in mind, whether we're writing or editing. Thank you for sharing!

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  11. An excellent demonstration of how word choices matter at levels we might not think about.

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  12. Thanks for the comments -- I was afraid that this might be a too simplistic exercise, but you have all reminded me again that simple is often best. Bob Sanchez is correct that describing everything in the room isn't necessary, and I love your example of the drop of blood in the sink, Bob -- now I want to know why it's there.

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  13. This is a great exercise. It's really easy to use those descriptive words and think we're showing, when we're really only giving our own perspective.

    This is one of the best explanations of "show don't tell" I've seen. Thank you!

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  14. This is great advice. It's hard to get a balance between seeing the world through a character's eyes and giving an author's opinion.

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  15. Excellent writing prompt, Kim, and gentle reminder to keep us on track. Have posted to my FB page Yours In Books. What I'm really supposed to be doing is revising a novel, and this will help me!

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  16. Great post, Kim, perfect description of that "show don't tell" that confuses many beginning writers, and that not-so-beginners need to remember. Thumbs up.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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