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I recently became aware of…I guess you’d call it a game, called “Tom Swifties.” The idea is to see how many examples you can come up with of the kind of writing that was used in the old Tom Swift books, i.e., Adverbs Gone Wild. I was horrified to learn that I am rather good at it. Some examples of my own:

  • “Your axe has hit me in the chest,” Tom said half-heartedly.
  • “There is no one staying in this hotel,” Tom said vacantly.
  • “I understand it all now,” Tom said comprehensively.

I said I was horrified. Now, these are quite silly (and believe me, there are worse), but at the same time they do show up a major problem that even highly-successful writers have: the use of adverbs to describe characters’ feelings. In other words, they are telling instead of showing.

“Show, don’t tell,” was one of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn as a writer, mostly because no one could explain it to me. Now I understand, and I try hard not to make this mistake. It’s very easy once you see an example of it: Instead of saying, “Tom said vacantly,” you write, “Tom said with a faraway look in his eye,” or “Tom said, staring into space,” or some other description of Tom’s actions. If you can stay out of Tom’s head, you’ll do fine. And that’s all there is to showing instead of telling.

When I was younger, I tried to imitate writers I liked, and usually made a hash of it. It took years to develop my own style, to stop trying to be someone else.

Ironically, I’d still like to be Tom Swift. Maybe he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, but he had the coolest adventures this side of Jonny Quest.

#SFWApro

 

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