Write What You Know, Show — Don’t Tell

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The above is pretty good essay about the godawful rules that are taught, or can be taught, in writing programs.

Reading about pruning adjectives and adverbs makes me want to add more of both.


 The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
 Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
 Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
 The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
 Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
 The water which they beat to follow faster,
 As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
 It beggar'd all description: she did lie
 In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
 O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
 The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
 Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
 With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
 To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
 And what they undid did. 


Take out all the unnecessary words in the passage above. Then explain why Antony fell in love with Cleopatra…

And read my story “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters,” which is about the importance of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs AND propositions.

I came to writing on my own via reading folk tales, fairy tales, science fiction, the Icelandic sagas, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte… “Show , don’t tell” is absolute BS in science fiction, as is “write what you know.” The essay references the Iowa Writers Workshop. The head of the workshop used to fundraise from rich Midwesterners by telling them that American creative writing was a weapon against Communism. (The book MFA vs NYC has an interesting chapter on Iowa.)

Here is a quote from the above essay about the head of the Iowa Writers Workshop, in case you don’t want to read the entire piece:

“I learned that our current methods of teaching craft date back to at least 1936 and the creation of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first MFA programme, which rose to prominence under Paul Engle, a white Iowan poet, who was invested in ‘Iowa as the home of the free individual, of the poet at peace with democratic capitalism, of the novelist devoted to the contemporary outlines of liberty.’”

I can see how a teacher in India would see these rules as western and colonial. But they are rooted in a specific kind of European and American literature at a specific moment in history… The bourgeois realistic novel of the 19th and 20th centuries… The American struggle against Communism and Socialism after World War Two…

This is the very famous opening of Austen’s most famous novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Austen is effing TELLING us.

I should probably stop now, before I get too agitated. I recommend the essay, and I absolutely agree that the rules this poor person learned should be unlearned. Depending on what kind of fiction you want to write, learn from folk tales, fairy tales, myths, science fiction, detective stories, Georgette Heyer romances, the stories written and told all over the world…