Editing Rant: Too Much Tell

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Doing a book review for “Soothe the Savage Beast” anthology back in 2018, I broke down each of the stories about what I liked or didn’t like about them. Just one or two short sentences. On one of the short stories within the anthology, I made an editing comment:

In the Quest of the Beast by Jean Rabe – (Hey, the SCA showed up!) I didn’t like the ending because I know women SCAdians are a little more kickin’ than portrayed. Still, the Main Character was a young college student and not a fighter. Good, “safe” monster story. (For editors out there, this story has too much “tell” and that creates an emotional distance in the story.)

A reader contacted me on goodreads through the messaging available on the site: “What does too much “tell” mean?”

My response: 

Tell is when the author writes stuff like – “He said with anger.” instead of “He said, his hand in a fist with the knuckles turning white.” or “All his friends loved him.” instead of “When he arrived, Julie and Adams jumped up to greet him.” – Show is action, let the reader draw their own interpretation from items presented. Tell is a direct narrative, telling the reader things – including how to react. While both are needed, <they need to balance> – too much show can slow down a story, while too much tell keeps the reader from getting involved because they are not being drawn in mentally. 

The fellow reader got back to me:

Okay. I admit that the story with too much tell in it and it wasn’t super great either, but since Jean Rabe is the most famous writer in the book, well, it wouldn’t bother an editor at all. Between it and <another short story in the anthology> caused me to give it four stars instead of five. 

Take-aways. (1) Even more causal readers notice when someone breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule even if they can’t articulate it. (2) Doesn’t matter how famous you are or how great you have been in the past, poor writing habits are poor writing habits. They are easy to develop, especially when looming deadlines tidal wave across the desk one after another. Make sure to surround yourself with people who will keep you honest.