More writing tips: getting started, and when to tell not show

The one golden rule of writing that brooks no breach is, of course, that a writer must write. Every day, without fail.

If you fall down at this first fundamental hurdle (and I do, all the time), knowing the layout of the obstacles beyond is worthless. Personally, I’m hugely intimidated by the blank page. Not so much with non-fiction, I might add, but that merely underlines the overall point – I write non-fiction every day, and it really makes a difference to your abilities after a little while.

Jim van Pelt reiterates this crucial truism:

“For most of the writers I hang around with, this isn’t a problem.  They are so attuned to their own story-making apparatus that they have more than a lifetime of ideas to write already.  But not everyone is that way.  For some they have to work at getting ideas, or they have to have some way to prime the writing pump to get words flowing.  For them, writing exercises are a godsend.”

Indeed they are – and that’s the main reason I miss going to the poetry workshop I used to attend, because the regular exercises used to get my brain (and pen) on the move. Van Pelt also links to this online random writing prompt generator, which looks like it could be a very useful tool for me.


Another oft-quoted writing rule is show, don’t tell – and that’s an important one, too, especially in poetry.

However, there are times when the reverse is true. It’s vital to keep your story lean and cruft-free, and E. E. Knight has some suggestions on how telling rather than showing can be the course of greater wisdom in certain situations:

“Most of your telling-not-showing is going to happen at the beginning or end of chapters or scenes. It’s routine business keeping, letting the reader know that time has passed and location has shifted (if it has).”

As usual, he’s included examples and quotations – which are invaluable, as it helps to see the effect of a technique rather than simply being advised to use it.


The common ground of those two posts is the fact that one only ever learns something by doing it, not just knowing it. John O’Neil, editor of Black Gate magazine, shares a list of points he has written out for himself, to remind him to put knowledge into practice. The last entry sums up the whole thing:

“10. You tend to think that once you understand something that you’ve learned it. By this time you should know better. Continue to refer to this list, because if you’d really learned all this stuff you wouldn’t have had to write this list in the first place.”


So, lots more sound advice for fictioneers. Though I will, of course, have to put more effort into crossing that first hurdle before the later ones will become of any real use to me!

3 thoughts on “More writing tips: getting started, and when to tell not show”

  1. Thanks Ian – looks like good sensible stuff. Once I get past the ‘actually, y’know, writing’ hurdle, I’ll try to take them on board! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the quote! Though I have to admit that it was Howard Andrew Jones (Managing Editor of Black Gate), not me, who posted that list.

    As I tell everyone, Howard’s the brains behind the operation. I’m just the good-looking front man. 🙂

    – John

    John O’Neill
    Black Gate

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