What young writers need (no, it’s not reading)

I often get quite tired of writing advice. As an English major, I’m at the receiving end of it pretty often. Don’t take me wrong, I try to incorporate as much of it as I can. That being said, there’s plenty of recommendations on writing that’ll do you as much good as a pile of steaming hot garbage.

The most common advice is to read. I admit, it is necessary. You can’t form a voice without first imitating others*. Remember, though, that this isn’t a permanent state. Don’t just always read. There have to be times of intense reading and times of intense writing. If you’re always reading, you’re not writing. It seems pretty intuitive.

So, once you get writing, how do you make it better? As a reader, some of the syntax you absorb from the “greats” will show up in your prose. I call this readers’ osmosis. When you read well for a long time, this will improve your abilities quite generally. Still, you can’t depend on reading novels over and over to make you a better writer. Something more is needed.

Octavia Butler, the author of Bloodchild, placed notes—mini pep talks—above her desk where she wrote. Some of them were what we’d put in a vision journal: goals, reminders, and expectations for herself. One note in particular reads, “Tell stories Filled with Facts. Make People Touch and Taste and KNOW. Make People FEEL! FEEL! FeeL!”

This is a critical to writing good fiction. Sensory details are the heart and soul of a story. Without them, fiction becomes burdensome and flat. Experiences are based on the senses. That’s tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing. In reality, those are what make the world believable. It’s just the same in fiction. Without believable details, all stories—whether set in reality or fantasy—don’t hold our attention.

Show, don’t tell.

Consider The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s world is convincing and enchanting because of how well he incorporate and shows concrete detail. The author does not make assertions or assumptions in the writing; he shows all.

This leads us to the maxim of the day: show, don’t tell. Fiction in particular is improved when you see what happens in your mind’s eye. Two examples:

  1. Even though she felt nervous, Amanda made a lasagna.
  2. Amanda gathered her ingredients and meticulously layered lasagna noodles with ricotta, sauce, and mozzarella. She tapped her fingers as the timer ticked down minute by minute.

It should be obvious that the second example is superior. Example two tells everything the first example does, but not outright. When we observe the real world, we are never told what to think; we simply observe. In this way, showing instead of telling is another layer to the realism of a story. That style frames the reader as an observer of sorts. A pretentious term for this is verisimilitude (the appearance of being true or real).

Sensory details and lifelike depictions are exactly what prevent our skepticism from kicking in. Without them, stories feel flat and vapid.

When reading fiction, we all practice what Samuel Taylor Coleridge labeled a “suspension of disbelief.” We tolerate the fact that fiction is not true (strictly speaking) in order to enjoy the story. Sensory details and lifelike depictions are exactly what prevent our skepticism from kicking in. Without them, stories feel flat and vapid. When a story is convincing in its detail and conception, it can change our lives.


*Even more importantly, read in your genre. If you’re planning on writing poetry, read Dickinson, Frost, Whitman, or Plath. If you’re planning on writing a children’s fantasy, deeply analyze the Harry Potter books. This familiarizes you with your genre and lets you know what’s already been done.


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