Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.


David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at


We are so excited to welcome John Scovill as our newest contributor! 

I have many different identities, like many of you who read this. If you were to check out my Twitter, you would see those identities listed. First, I am a father of three awesome and rambunctious kids, but after that, I am a teacher.

Before my current position, I taught sixth grade language arts for two years and was able to read a plethora of writing. I also gave feedback to thousands of students. Educational researcher John Hattie says that, “feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.” Can you think of a time when feedback given to you was either negative or positive?

As writers, we give feedback to our peers in our writing groups or just friends who asks, “Can you read this?” But do we really know if one, our feedback is effective and two, if our feedback is moving the writer in a positive or negative way? Just know that feedback is a “consequence” of performance.

Children and adults need three positive contacts to erase one negative. This could also be true for feedback.

I have had many instances being on the receiving end of feedback. As a new writer, it is always comforting to know that my published writing friends have self-doubts about their writing. I know that I am not alone.


Recently, I was given two “rounds” of feedback on two different pieces of writing. I even paid for this feedback. These were my two pieces of feedback:

Feedback One: The reader read two pages (I could tell because there were no scribbles on the remaining three pages), asked me a few questions (I admit, I have a hard time talking about my writing), and said, “you aren’t going home and rewriting, you are going home and outlining.” Okay, thanks for the direction at $40. How do I outline? Where do I start? What should I ditch? What should I save? Where is my starting point? Is there a nugget of hope in this writing? No answers. I was disappointed.

Feedback Two: After a few weeks, I get an email with corrections and a few thoughts in parts. All were negative. Again, no little nugget of hope.

After this, I felt like giving up. My writing is horrible. Why even try. I am not going to any more writing conferences until I can figure this out. These were the thoughts I was having.

I talked to a friend recently who has been on a long road to publication and has shown that perseverance is key, said, “I don’t let people read my writing. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I write. And maybe I will show it to at least two other knowledgeable people that know me. That’s it. When too many people look at your writing, it doesn’t give you any direction as to where to go.”

I loved this and have taken it to heart.

Many people don’t know how to give proper, helpful, useful feedback. Many people don’t have the time, nor are invested in the story you are writing to truly care about the feedback they give.

Effective feedback must answer three major questions: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be taken to make better progress?)

Some ideas to think about with each question:

Where am I going?

How is the character reaching his/her goal? What is the goal of the character? What is my goal as a writer? What problem does the character have?

How am I going?

What progress is the character making towards reaching their goal? What is my progress in reaching my goal? How is the character going to reach their goal(s)? What shifts do I need to make to enable the character to reach the end goal, or little goals along the way?

Where to next?

As the writer, what plot holes or lagging areas do I need to address? Does a twelve- year-old actually say this or think this way? How can I fix it? What goals can I make as a writer to fix these mistakes and move the story forward?

Feedback shouldn’t discourage the writer from writing, but move the writer along with their writing. If you don’t have the time, energy, or you’re not invested in the writing or the writer, please don’t offer feedback (even for money), because feedback should offer answers and hope for the writer.



John Scovill is originally from Iowa and has since lived in Arizona, Texas, and now Utah. He is a father, a husband, a teacher – now school administrator, and a writer. He hopes to hear from you at or on Twitter @johnlit360

Building Up Others Through Critiquing

A couple months ago, I heard someone talk about his experiences with a demolition project in a nearby city. He talked about surveying the property and how they set up the charges and what it felt like watching the building come down.

But then he made the comment that they were able to destroy in less than a day what took months—or possibly even years—to build. He said, “It is much, much easier to destroy something than it is to build it.”

I’ve thought about this a lot since then and about what, within my sphere of influence, I can build up rather than destroy. And I’m trying to do those things. Somethings are small things, like trying to smile and say, “Good morning,” to more people as I walk down the street or choosing to be happy instead of grumpy (which is often harder than it looks).


There are other things, too, like critiquing manuscripts. It’s easy for me to be impatient and see only the perceived flaws in something. But that’s not the best way. One thing that has really impressed me with the workshops in my master’s program is how kind almost everyone is. They are so good at pointing out the good and encouraging growth instead of tearing down. This kind of attitude, where no one is trying to prove how much better they are by trashing someone else’s project, allows everyone to learn better.

I know I learn better that way. I learn so much better when someone points out what I’m doing right rather than focusing solely on what I’m doing wrong. And I know in parenting that kids do much better when they’re praised and encouraged instead of constantly yelled at. That’s just human nature.

But it’s oh, so much easier to destroy something than it is to build it up…

Wait, you might be saying. Isn’t critiquing supposed to point out the problems?

In a way. Critiquing is intended to help writers improve, but they first need some idea of what’s working. It’s also important for writers (who tend to be neurotic and in need of lots of reassurance) to know what they’re doing well and to feel like they have potential. And then, once they know that, you can encourage them to improve the other things, the things that aren’t working so well, to the same level as the good.

It’s not always easy to critique a manuscript like that, but I’ve found that when I go to a manuscript looking for the good, I can always find it. And when I start focusing on that, I can start to see where I can improve my own writing in subtle ways that I hadn’t noticed before. So instead of picking up a critique looking to find out what’s bad in it (and no book is ever perfect), try to look for the good and help that to grow. Try to build up and encourage and you might be surprised at what you learn along the way.


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

What You Don’t Know About Writing Conferences: Behind the Scenes

Earlier this month, several members of the Thinking Through Our Fingers crew contributed to the Tenth Annual Writing for Charity Conference, an event founded by author Shannon Hale. This conference is an amazing collaboration of over 100 Utah writers that come together to offer critiques, presentations, and panel discussions to raise money for books and libraries in underprivileged communities.

Have you considered helping out at a writing conference but don’t know what’s involved? Or how you could benefit from it? How enjoyable or stressful it might be? How much of a time commitment is required? Then you’re in luck — we’re here today to share our experiences and behind-the-scenes perspectives.

Volunteers (Elaine)
As writers, we often want to be involved and we’re eager to make connections. But. We’re introverts. We’re happy to talk to anybody who approaches us, but often too shy to do the approaching. We look forward to the day we’re asked to speak so it won’t feel like we’re just forcing ourselves and our stories on people. We feel like that’s the point when we’ll actually have something to contribute. We want to be involved, but we’re awkward about exactly what that means and how it should work.

If this sounds like you, may I suggest volunteering? Writing for Charity is unique in that even the keynote speaker is there as a volunteer, but we also have a crew of volunteers for which the only qualification is that you be dependable and happy to help. When I realized this, I wished I’d been serving as a volunteer for years, and I wished they’d only asked me! But here’s the thing about volunteering, which shouldn’t come as a huge shock: sometimes you have to volunteer to be a volunteer. Don’t wait to be asked! Just check the conference website and seek out those opportunities, or reach out to conference organizers. It’s a great way to make connections and be helpful at the same time, and it’s really a fun and unique conference experience.

Critiques (Rosalyn)
I was asked to head-up organizing the critiques several months before the conference and blithely said yes, thinking: how hard can it be to match people up? As it turns out, trickier than I expected! A couple of weeks before the conference, I got a list of who was interested in critiques: Writing for Charity offers five-page paid critiques and free one-page critiques. My first task was finding volunteers to do the critiquing, but that part turned out to be fairly easy, as most writers are generous people interested in giving back to the community that helped them.

It was a little trickier matching people up by age-group and genre, and making sure that I didn’t schedule any of the author volunteers at a time they had a panel. And then of course, whenever I thought I had things down, something changed: someone had a critique scheduled at the same time as their pitch session with an agent; someone was (unbeknownst to me) already critique partners with the author I’d scheduled them with, etc. Little changes often had a snowball effect, where I had to switch several people around to accommodate a change. Luckily, everyone was gracious about the changes!

The day of the conference I spent time at the beginning of every session making sure everyone knew where to go to meet their assigned critiques: sometimes this meant I was late to the session; sometimes it meant I missed the session entirely.

But really? I loved it. I met so many new people this way (people who recognized my name because I’d sent them so many emails in the weeks before the conference started . . . ) and like Elaine said, having something useful to do is a wonderful icebreaker, particularly for introverts. I also got to hang around the registration desk a lot, which no doubt made me look more important than I really am!

Organizational Tip: My advice to anyone volunteering in some sort of scheduling capacity–start earlier than you think you need to, and plan on it taking longer than you expect! Also, keep a sense of humor with you–it really helps when things don’t go entirely as expected. (For instance: the conference was held on a university campus, which had told us we’d have the use of four rooms for critiques, pitches, etc. What they didn’t tell us was that these rooms were study rooms available on a first come, first serve basis–which meant they were mostly occupied by students before we got there! So we used the lounges instead.)

Panels (Helen)
I was one of four members on a panel discussion on “Self-Publishing Well.” Armed with a serious case of the nerves, I was the first one to walk into the room, sit down in a chair, and face the audience. They looked back at me with interest and even some smiles, and my worries eased. Breakout sessions where attendees can sit in on their choice of panels are common at writing conferences; the people who come to your panel will be there because they (1) thought your topic sounded cool and (2) have similar interests to you, so just relax and have fun! Our panel went smoothly, we had great audience questions, and feedback from attendees was very positive. How much preparation was involved prior to the panel? As a participant (and not a moderator or organizer), I required very little advance preparation. I also had a lot of fun! 🙂

Panel Etiquette Tips:
Don’t dominate. This applies to both moderators and panelists. In our panel, our moderator posed a series of questions, and we each took a turn sharing our perspectives. Keep your answers brief. You’re not in a competition with the other panelists to be the one who can offer the most knowledge, and you can learn a lot by listening to what they have to say.

– Offer personal anecdotes and experiences. Don’t worry about delivering a prepared speech or being able to cite research or sources for information. Your audience will benefit most from hearing about your personal experience, and the shared experiences from your fellow panelists will provide a well-rounded array of possibilities for your audience.

– If you’re asked to be a moderator, prepare several broad questions. I’ve been on panels where we started off with brief introductions and then by asking questions to the audience. This works well if your audience has questions to start, and if panel duration is short, but sometimes audiences are initially quiet. As a moderator, you should come prepared with a few big-picture questions that can get the conversation rolling. Our moderator was excellent and had a little notebook from which she pulled a few starter questions (e.g., “Why did you choose to self-publish?” “What is the biggest lesson you learned from the first time you self-published?”).

Making Connections (Erin)

People are always asking how I know so many people at writing events. This is mostly because I’ve been going to conferences and workshops since my children were very tiny. But I’m also probably a bit too chatty and I love to meet new people. So, how do you do it? How do you jump right in and connect with new groups of writers?

*Offer to help! Find out who’s in charge and volunteer to help with the event. Or maybe you didn’t think to officially volunteer and you’re at a conference? Pay attention and look for opportunities to help. As soon as Elaine and I pulled into the parking lot we noticed a friend and author struggling to pack massive boxes of books into the building. Together we lugged those boxes in lickety split.

*Ask questions! Don’t you love to be asked what you write or what you’re working on? Isn’t it nice to have people show interest in you? Don’t wait around for someone to ask you questions though. And don’t sit there, awkwardly wishing someone you knew was nearby. You can be the one to start conversations! Whenever I’m in a line or sitting by someone in a class or at a table for lunch, I ask people near me what they write and what they’re working on. I ask where they’re from and how many kids they have and what book they’re reading and we chat and chat and chat and eventually it’s like we’re old friends. I love it!

Bonus Tip: Bring a selfie stick! They draw out the fun, goofy side of writers.

*Be inclusive! Be aware of those around you and whether or not they’re contributing to conversations or looking a bit lonely. There’s been times I’m chatting with someone and  notice someone nearby who looks as though they’d like to be part of the conversation, but they just don’t quite know how to do it. Or maybe they simply look a bit lost. I smile at them and ask them a question, too! Usually, I manage to draw them into the conversation, too. I love these words from Edwin Markham from the poem Outwitted:

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. 
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!

*Connect long term! When you find people you well and truly connect with, find each other on social media so you can let the friendship continue to grow. I started going to writing events before Facebook. (Well. That makes me sound ancient.) I love how social media lets these new connections well and truly flourish across huge distances. I now have writing friends in Turkey, India, Canada, and England! I love that I can stay in touch with them through social media.

Have you ever attended a writing conference? Any secrets to share?

The Reductive Revision

So far this summer, I’ve been drafting a new project, rejoicing as my word count goes up and not worrying in the slightest about messes and holes I’m leaving along the way. But soon, I’ll receive a new round of edits and it will be time to revise. Again.

Revision is the time to clean up the messes you’ve made, and for many of us, it’s a time to rejoice when the word count goes down. Often this involves axing entire characters and scenes, killing subplots, or any other variety of painful, violent things. If this is what the story calls for, you absolutely have to do it. But there’s another method that often gets overlooked, and, when combined with the bigger cuts, can help tighten your writing and decrease your word count.

The term I use for this is the reductive revision, and I first read about it here. Since then, I’ve recommended a reductive revision to almost all my critique partners and beta readees. I’ve also used it on every single one of my own manuscripts.

A reductive revision is a careful pass through your entire manuscript, looking for every extra word and superfluous sentence. It’s ruthlessly and repeatedly asking yourself, “Is this word/phrase/sentence/paragraph absolutely necessary? Is it moving the story forward in any way?” If the answer is “no,” cut it. (If you’re doing it right, the answer will be “no” hundreds of times.)

There are small things to look for, including:

  • Dialogue tags that are immediately preceded or followed by the character’s name, or an action by that character. By all means, combine these!
  • Redundancy. This is a huge one. Readers generally understand things more quickly and need far fewer reminders than we think they do.
  • Showing, then telling. (Or vice versa.)
  • Shrugging one’s shoulders (Just shrug! We know it’s the character’s shoulders)
  • Kneeling down (We know they’re not kneeling up!)

So what does a reductive revision look like? With my critique partners’ permission, here are a couple of passages from the pages we sent for our last meeting, both before and after a reductive revision. Keep in mind that these are brilliant, advanced writers (as you’ll see), and they still have words that can be cut!

Here’s the first one:

He’s staring at me with blatant suspicion. Looking down his nose at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business being here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare at him, but my head fills with self loathing because that’s not too far off the mark. (54 words)

There are a few things here that could be considered redundant. The “blatant suspicion” and “looking down his nose” cover mostly the same territory. The head filling with self-loathing can be stated more succinctly (and maybe more closely to this character’s voice as well), and modifying this part just a little will also remove a reference to the characters head, which is always a good thing. (Heads, hearts, chests, stomachs…) Note: There are times to use repetition for emphasis or voice, but use it sparingly! <– Says the girl who has a tendency to use it too much.

So if we make these changes:

He’s staring at me with blatant suspicion. Looking looking down his nose at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business being here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare at him, but my head fills with self loathing because that’s hating that he’s not too far off the mark.

We end up cutting roughly a third of the words without losing any of the meaning, characterization, or story:

He’s looking down at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare, hating that he’s not too far off the mark. (37 words)

Okay, here’s another, from a different author and story:

Her phone rang. Glancing down, Sophia saw it was Emma’s name and hit the button to ignore the call. Two more times, Emma’s name appeared on the screen, each receiving the same reaction. (33 words)

There’s not much here that’s redundant, but it can definitely be trimmed. In this case, there are excess  words describing things readers will be familiar with, and shorter, more abrupt sentences might serve even better to underscore the main character’s actions of cutting her sister off.

So if we make these changes:

Her phone rang. Glancing down, Sophia saw it was Emma’s name and hit the button to ignore the call. Emma. Twice more, Emma called, and twice more, Sophia sent her sister straight to voicemail. Two more times, Emma’s name appeared on the screen, each receiving the same reaction.

Her phone rang. Emma. Sophia hit Ignore. Twice more, Emma called, and twice more, Sophia sent her sister straight to voicemail. (21 words)

Again, the passage is roughly a third shorter, and nothing has been lost. There’s even a little repetition in there, but I’d argue that it works in this case, and the passage is better for it.

The cuts won’t be this severe everywhere, but I’ve never read a manuscript that didn’t have fat to be trimmed. Making a pass through your whole manuscript with this specific purpose in mind will make for a tighter story that’s easier to read and harder to put down.

What do you think? Have I cut too much? What other cuts would you suggest? Do you have other suggestions for trimming these passages, or for reductive revisions in general?


Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂