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« The Sound of Silent Rejection | Main | One more chance to sign up for spring Writing Games! »

Letter to Students: Showing, Telling, and Self-Limitation

Writing Games is returning to Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on April 18! Time is running out, so sign up to secure your spot now. Click here to register!

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails.

image via freevintageimages.com

This week we explored various ways to "bust the exposition trap," which is a writing habit many aspiring authors fall into. The exposition trap is when we rely too heavily on descriptive or analytic prose instead of placing readers directly in the scene or world we're depicting. Some people call the remedy to the exposition trap "showing instead of telling," but I think that distinction has limited usefulness because really compelling writing combines a bit of both showing and telling. However, as we explored in our exercises, sometimes to break the habit we have to overcorrect, and challenge ourselves to write something that exclusively "shows" (like our action verb game) in order to stretch those underused creative muscles.

I've taught a few classes on the exposition trap so far, and each time, it makes me pause and reconsider a lot of the writing axioms that we learn, such as "show, don't tell." Like any proverb, it's about 70% true, but it's so neat and tidy that it's easy to reach for it all the time. After all, it makes our writing decisions for us! When any piece of writing "wisdom" is treated dogmatically like that, it winds up having the opposite of its intended effect--it can just serve to create another issue. So rather than focusing on telling you what not to do, I tried to design this class to help you see all that you can do--rather than setting up a false dichotomy of "show, don't tell," why not learn to do both really well, and have twice as many tools in your writing box?

There's a big difference between self-awareness and self-limitation. We all have these fears about our writing: am I telling too much, and not showing enough? Am I not original enough? Is my material not serious enough? Not funny enough? Am I copying too much from my own life, and not inventing enough?

Self-awareness means being able to recognize what needs improvement and what works about your writing, and learning that even the areas that require improvement are open doors to development, experimentation, and new efforts--not shut doors of "forbidden technique." I think writers suffer especially from this attitude, inculcated by workshops and even our pop-culture images of writers as tortured and self-loathing: that self-improvement means self-limitation, self-flagellation.

But what I've learned through personal experience and observation is that growth and improvement come much more rapidly when we focus on what we can do, not what we can't. Even if it results in error, I think it's much easier and more productive to reel in an overly ambitious or adventurous style than it is to try to pry ourselves out of the clutches of self-consciousness and self-limitation. I hope this week's exercises helped.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 

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Thanks for the great article

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