Show me don’t tell me!
Nearly every day for the past 16 years that I have been passionately teaching journalism my students have heard the words “write to show me rather than tell me!”
And nearly every day for the past 16 years they have looked back at me blankly with little to no idea about how to do it.
And fair enough! It is difficult. And it takes practice. But when you do it well it makes all the difference to whatever you are writing – articles, media releases, social media or copy for marketing.
As Anton Chekhov said…
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
So for anyone keen to improve their writing here are some tips that will make all the difference:
Use active voice
What Is Active Voice?
In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the sentence “Steve loves Amy.” Steve is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Amy, the object of the sentence. .Another example is the title of the Marvin Gaye song “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” “I” is the subject, the one who is doing the action. “I” is hearing “it,” the object of the sentence.
What Is Passive Voice?
In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, “Steve loves Amy,” I would say, “Amy is loved by Steve.” The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn’t doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve’s love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy. If you wanted to make the title of the Marvin Gaye song passive, you would say “It was heard by me through the grapevine,” not such a catchy title anymore!
Passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.
Use strong verbs
If sentences are houses, then verbs are the support beams. They carry the weight of the description on their typographic shoulders, which means they should be strong – fierce, even. If you want your audience to truly disappear into your story, then you’ll want to dust off the thesaurus: a simple word change can help create a complex scene.
Use dialogue or quotes
Tone of voice conveys nearly as much emotion as faces do, which can admittedly be difficult when you’re made of words and are relatively one-dimensional. Thank goodness for dialogue, then, because it helps you set the stage for a character’s mood, emotions, and general personality. With dialogue, a paragraph of exposition can easily become three lines of conversation and, subsequently, make an even greater impact on the reader. In news nothing tells the story like the human voice of the people involved – very powerful!
Use sensory language
Just because you’re reading with your eyes (or with your ears, if you’re listening to an audio book), doesn’t mean you’re not using your other senses. A well-written piece will have you seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, and feeling everything the characters do – all from the descriptions provided.
Descriptions are like bright colors in a house: the perfect amount makes your home look creative, well-crafted, and fabulous…while too many can make it look like you gave a rainbow palette to a five year old and walked away. Your job as the writer is to make sure the reader understands your story; choosing the right words to craft your description goes a long way in making that job easier.
This one is hard but one of the best things you can do is use your skills to write with brevity. While this could mean condensing and shortening long pieces of text, it also means clarifying difficult language. Your reader needs to understand what you’re trying to say for it to matter, to make an impact. Specificity remedies this, provides clarity, and results in a stronger product at the end of the day.
And remember the right message on right platform makes all the difference for engagement!