September 08, 2006

Primer on Writing

Warning: I don’t actually know how I do it. I mostly wing it each time I sit down with a pen and paper or my computer, but there are a few “rules” that I think universally apply. Some of these you no doubt have heard before, “show don’t tell” for one. Yet when you sit down to write you find you do not really understand what that means. I hope to make it and other “rules” clear. Once you know the rules and can follow them, then of course, you are free to break them if you can think of some better way you want to write. Some writers actually do.

Show don’t tell: what do I mean by “telling”? Well, it’s...Here’s an example: first I tell, then I rewrite it showing.

1) I’m feeling very frightened. Terribly anxious. I’m starting to worry that I might have the worst panic attack yet. I feel those scary palpitations beginning already...

2) My stomach twists itself into a granny knot. I tremble. Is an assault to start? Already my heart thunders against my ribs, as if trying to free itself...

Now why is #1 telling and #2 showing? Look at the words. “I’m feeling very frightened. Terribly anxious” Here I am telling you how I feel, straight out, nothing more to say about it. Compare it to the first line of #2. “My stomach twists...I tremble.” Not a word telling you how I feel, actually. I haven’t said I am fearful or anxious. Yet you know I am. Why? Because I have appealed to your senses. I have shown you familiar physical responses to fear and anxiety, I’ve shown you “symptoms” as it were of my feelings and let you intuit how I feel. In short, I’ve allowed you to participate in my writing, get involved with it and therefore absorbed by it. Telling readers keeps them on the surface and fails to draw them into the text, whereas showing them keeps the readers involved and is the best way to invite them to stay with a piece of writing.

How do you “show don’t tell” in writing? And is it only in the matter of feelings? You use your senses and let the readers use theirs. You note how you feel and what you smella dn taste and hear and touch and convey it all to the reader. And you use details. Also it’s not only a matter of feelings, it’s thoughts (Fictional sentences: “I think about my father’s “visiting his friend” every Christmas, which was the lie he told when he wanted to go to the bar, then he came home and beat up his wife and kids...” versus “I think about how my dad was a physically abusive alcoholic.” Which one shows and which tells?) and it’s events and it’s everything in a narrative.

NOTE: Sometimes something should be told, though. When you make a transition between sections or episodes or dates, or want to move quickly from one subject to another, or simply for a change of pace, you might want to take a break and tell the readers a bit of “what happened in the interim” etc. You develop a feel for this after a while. The critical thing is to know how to show an event, a feeling, a thought, without telling the reader outright. The instinct for when to tell will develop on its own. Do not worry about it!

As a corollary to Show don’t Tell, several rules apply: 1) Use vivid verbs; 2) use as few adjectives and fewer adverbs as possible; 3) avoid gerunds, that is, “ing” forms of the verb if you can; 4) go for specific details not just generalizations: granny knot rather than knot for example. 5) try to express things that you want to describe in fresh language and metaphor, which add life and sparkle to any writing.

Now let’s go back to my first Show don’t Tell example and take a look at it according to the rules above, so that I can explain them better.

My stomach twists itself into a granny knot. I tremble. Is an assault to start? Already my heart thunders against my ribs, as if trying to free itself...

Please understand that this was written on the fly and is not the best sentence. But it will do for an example. First corollary rule; Use vivid verbs. “My stomach twists itself”. “Twists” may not be the most original of words or concepts but it carries with it a strong feeling of internal turmoil and conflict both physical and mental, and is a little better than “ties” and more vivid than “turns” or the insipid “gets”. What might be fresher and more vivid than twists? Let me see...braids, weaves, winds, coils, deforms, transforms...OR I could change the whole metaphor to something fresher. But staying with this one for the time being, I’d say twists is the best, for evoking in the reader the physical feeling of his or her stomach actually being twisted into knots.

Let’s look at the word “thunders” which is surely a vivid verb, and yet I had my doubts about it and still do. I don’t like the two syllables. Originally I had written “pounds”, which is more prosaic and used more often, though “thunders” is not exactly unused, but I wanted it for its single syllable. I need to see if I can find a fresher more colorful verb with one syllable...But why one syllable? Because all the single-syllable words with occasional two-syllable ones suggests a heart beating, but two two-syllable words together seems to me to interrupt this rhythm. Or at least I think this is why I don’t like “thunders”...Can’t say for sure. It may be that “thunders” simply slows down the flow of the words.

“Knock, flail, batter, bang, thump” are words that could substitute for pound. So are, “Whack, slam, crash, bump.” Hmmm. Yes, I like it, slam, a heart slamming against ribs, like a wild animal that slams against the walls of its cage trying to find a way out... it’s fresh, I’ve never heard it used, and vivid to the max. So we’ll replace “thunders” or “pounds” with “slams”.

My stomach twists itself into a granny knot. I tremble. Is an assault to start? Already my heart slams against my ribs, as if trying to free itself...

Now, I am unsure about “tremble” but I’m going to leave it for now, because I want to get to Rule #2: use as few adjectives as possible and fewer adverbs. Count up the adjectives in my example. I believe there is only one, and it merely characterizes what kind of knot it is, which makes the knot more specific and vivid. More on that later. Believe it or not, adjectives and adverbs weaken your writing, where strong nouns and verbs strengthen it. Write a paragraph, read it, then read it again without any adjectives etc and see just how many were truly necessary for the message to be gotten across. And if you change the nouns and verbs to reflect what the adjectives did, weakening the piece, you’ll have a much stronger and sparkling piece of writing in the end. Try it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, though it takes some discipline and it is always hard to cut away those “essential” adjectives one labors so hard to find and append to a noun or verb. Work hard instead to find just the right verb or noun and you’ll have better spent your time.

Take it as a rule, because I can’t give you the reason [AVA: can you help with any of this???], except to say that it weakens all writing: DO NOT USE GERUNDS, that is –ING forms of words if you can avoid it. Try not to write: “I was starting to feel as if” or It was beginning to seem that he was a---“ Just say “I felt” or “He was” and if you wrote: “He was running down the street” go back and change it to “He ran down the street.” This can be done in the editing stage. I have to do it all the time, because I forget too. But it is always good to remove all the "I was starting to" and "He was beginning to" and as many –ings as you can, trust me on this.

Now for the BIGGIES! Give the reader details, details, details! Be specific even when you want to generalize. When Annie Dillard writes about Nature in general, she does so by writing in specific about, say, the giant waterbug, not about bugs in general, or perhaps about the northeastern hemlock and its parasites specifically, not just about trees. Details are essential to keep readers interested and hold their attention. The minute you write in generalizations, you’ve will have lost them, unless you have prepared them for it by means of specificity and they are willing to grant you the time to draw some general conclusions.

We need details, sensory details about physical sensations when you are showing us how a person feels, so that we may feel it ourselves and intuit the feeling. We want to know how something smells and tastes, what the texture is, what it looks like or how it sounds. We want all of these details in order to have as clear a picture of what you are writing about as possible. Let us be with you as you describe for us whatever you see with your mind's eye or with your real eyes, wherever you are or wherever you go in your mind. We want to go there with you and are more than willing to accompany you. We're puppy dogs, we readers. We salivate over good writing. All you have to do is take the lead and we will be happy to follow. Just give us details so we can!

And finally, how to make your writing snap crackle and pop. Use simile (“His nose is like a potato”) and metaphor (“he has a potato for a nose” or “His nose is a potato”) Metaphor often affects the reader more, by virtue of its shock effect. But simile gives the reader some warning and lets him into the comparison more gently. They are more or less interchangeable, but for this. You will get a feel for when you want one or the other.Though writing a good metaphor or simile is one of the hardest things to master for most people, I happen to believe that those of us who have schizophrenia more or less in remission or who are in recovery may find it easier than others. I could be wrong, but I think our looser way of thinking, our ease with oddness and “weird thoughts” – you know what I mean, I think – makes it easier to come up with the kinds of comparisons between completely different things that make interesting or fresh metaphors. However, those who take care of those with SZ may have the same ability, simply by virtue of knowing what this thinking is like.

In any event, easy or hard to do, metaphors and similes are the lifeblood of good, detailed, sparkly writing. You don’t want every sentence to hold a metaphor, though. No, you want to use them like pepper: spice up a narrative with them, add flavor and punch. But use them sparingly so that when they appear they are noticed. Your writing will be so great, what with details and your ability to appeal to the sense and show not tell that even without the metaphors and similes for a while, readers will follow right along, stepping on the heels of your shoes in their enthusiasm. The only thing for it is to keep writing.

So go and write. BUT you must also read! Read good writers; ask a librarian who they are; develop a list of the writers you enjoy; examine their writing, see how they achieve their effects, try to copy them if you like. It won’t harm you or keep you from developing your own voice, because no one can copy perfectly and your copying will still be you, or will become you over time. Read and read and write when you can. But when you can’t, don’t beat yourself up. There were whole years I couldn’t write. I came back to it eventually because life without writing was meaningless. When you can write, try your best to follow these few rules and above all, keep writing. Because the only way to learn to be a writer is to write.

And no fair looking for all the rules broken in this entry...I’m sure I broke all of them a zillion times, but hey, even Homer nods! BD

Good luck and good writing!


Readers, you were so great with your suggestions when I asked for them. I would love some more-- specific topics. That's what would help the most. For instance, someone suggested middle age, so I wrote about that. And someone else wanted to know about how to write, so I wrote about that. And so forth. I do have other things to say, but really specific requests would be very helpful, if you can think of some. Or general ones, but specific in that they are a general topic: middle age, saddle leather (hmmm) and so forth. I'm not too good about writing my "thoughts about love and life" though! BD HALP! AU SECOURS!

Posted by pamwagg at September 8, 2006 04:33 PM


Hi Pam,

I'm printing your "how to write blog."

I know I can go to the library and find hundreds of books to read. In the last 4 or 5 years I have read a lot of books on mental illness and knitting. I need to expand my reading list. Can you make some suggestions?

I love your explanations on how you write.


Posted by: yaya99 at September 9, 2006 09:31 PM


I'm a regular reader here and love this blog. Thanks for the writing tips.

If you haven't already discovered Barbara Kingsolver, do try one of her books. My favorite Kingsolver books are The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer.

Here's the URL to Kinsolver's website and an excerpt from Prodigal Summer, which was so good I was sad when it ended. I started to love her characters so much that I missed them when the book ended. Now that's good writing!

Best wishes,
Cynthia Gracie

Posted by: Cynthia Gracie at September 9, 2006 01:35 PM

I certainly agree with your theory that psychosis enhances a person's ability to create compelling metaphors.Studies even show that "mentally healthy" writers score higher on measures of psychoticism than average people do.(Which doesn't necessarily make them psychotic.) There is a great discussion about psychosis as "thinking in metaphor" in The Midnight Disease, a book about writing and mental illness. I find that I do my best writing when my psychosis is being treated but I still have a touch of it left--I think if I am actively psychotic my metaphors are too "out there" to be understood.

Posted by: Samantha at September 9, 2006 01:27 PM

Thank you for your insights on writing. Do you think that sz gives you an inside track on fresh analogies because your senses perhaps perceive things differently than others' senses do? I get that feeling from some of your poetry. I think my own poetry is sometimes better because of the assault on my senses that arises out of sz.

Posted by: Donna Carolyn at September 9, 2006 01:07 PM

Dear Pam,
Your impromtu "course" on the process of writing certainly rivals anything I have ever read in a text or heard from a professor's lips. It was clear, straightforward, and very practical advice that can be easily practiced by anyone. I do have one question, however. How could you possibly have praised the essay I sent to you when it broke every single rule by which you strive to abide and recommend to fledgling writers??????
Your puzzled Pal, Paula, the adverb abuser

Posted by: Paula Kirkpatrick at September 8, 2006 09:56 PM

Oh, Pam, I do wish you could stand before my daughter's creative writing class and tell her and her classmates everything that you've just told us! I am going to send her your post, of course, but as I am her mother and she is 19, I am quite possibly the least-heeded person in her universe. How much better it would be if she could receive your tutorial straight from you, untainted by maternal approval!

Aya, I saw a copy of the delightful Eats, Shoots and Leaves in a bookstore on the Jersey Shore and would have bought it had I not been so poor. A month has gone by since then but even now, in idle moments, I am visited by the wacky image of the gun-toting Panda strolling into the bar . . .

I could write about writing for a very long time, but promise to spare anyone hapless enough to have stumbled upon this comment. I love writing because it enables me to THINK, more or less. Despite Paula's kind comments regarding my intelligence the sad fact remains that I am, in many ways, as dumb as a brick. I have scarcely any notion what I think about anything until I write it down, and even then I can never be sure if what I've written is my actual opinion, or just something that flew off my fingertips. When I was a child I rarely spoke, and this was not simply because I was shy--although indeed I was--but also because I was plain slow on the draw.

Then too I love writing because it is, well, slippery. It is quite possible to write something autobiographical, say, and include nothing which is not perfectly factual, and yet, at the same time, lie up one side and down the other. A little slant, a little edge, a little shepherding, a bit of forgeting, and one's life's story becomes just as new as it is old. No mindful duplicity need be involved; sometimes, I think, the writer breathes life into a tale and then hangs on as the thing takes off.

But enough, and way more than enough! Pam, if not love, life, or leather, how about happiness for a topic? How about grief, or regret, or your concept of soul or spirit? Your love of the Hopkins poem suggests that you'd have plenty to say about the last two . . .

Posted by: Cynthia at September 8, 2006 09:55 PM

PS. I'm reading a wonderful book about, of all things, PUNCTUATION. It is hilarious and very informative. It's called Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, Gotham Books, 2006 (paperback edition). HIghly recommended for anyone who loves words and language. And for ALL editors!


Posted by: Ava Hayes at September 8, 2006 07:41 PM

Just excellent, Pam! You could certainly teach a writing fact, that seems to be just what you ARE doing!

Terrific examples, and ummm, GOOD WRITING!!


PS Aspiring writers might also enjoy Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird.

Posted by: Ava Hayes at September 8, 2006 07:33 PM

Hello Pam,

Your entry on "how to write" is by far one of the best cheat sheets I've read about showing versus telling, and about details.

I read your memoir and thought it was beautiful, and evocative of what a lot of people go through who have schizophrenia.

You have a talent for inspiring others in your own quiet way.

I look forward to reading your next entries.


Posted by: Christina Bruni at September 8, 2006 07:08 PM

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