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John Jenkins February 10


The February column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Show the reader – don’t tell them!

By John Jenkins

Sooner or later most good tutors will advise you to stop "telling" the reader what has happened and instead "show them." The point is to involve the reader. There are many times when tell is more important, but nine times out of ten go for show.

More than half of the entries in any competition fall down in this respect and the next biggest failure is lack of conflict.

Here are three simple examples:


Rosalind, a good-looking girl in her late twenties, who could turn heads, was in no mood to be put off as she walked through the security check of the high-rise office block and took the lift to the eighth floor, sharing it with two other people. She had thought long and hard about her decision.
The receptionist, a new girl at the law firm Franks and Norton, asked whom she wanted to see. She told the girl she wanted to see Peter Franks about a divorce but didn’t have an appointment.

This would be better:


Rosalind flicked her blonde hair back from her eyes and clicked across the marble floor in her four inch Jimmy Choo heels. The security guard nodded recognition as the figure sashayed past him, opaque black tights disappearing up a black and white check miniskirt set off by a plain, cropped primrose jacket.
She took the lift to the fourth floor, ignoring the two men who mentally undressed her.
A new girl in reception looked up. "Can I help you?"
"I do not have an appointment but this is urgent and I would like to see Peter Franks."
Can I tell him what it’s about?
"Yes. He’s my husband and I am going to divorce the bastard."


Drifter Hank Williams was a mean sonofabitch. He rode into Dodge City and was looking for trouble from the word go. He didn’t worry that his face looked down from a wanted poster on the wall. There was hush as he walked into the saloon.

Better Show

Hank Williams rode into Dodge City, spat a stream of tobacco juice at a mongrel lying asleep on the saloon porch, and a woman stumbled out of the way as he barged through the swing doors, Colt 45 in his hand.

"Anybody looking for reward money can draw now," he snarled. Not a man moved….


Nothing was ever too much trouble for Katherine as she bustled about the ward. Patients appreciated her smile. And no-one was nervous or embarrassed about asking her for the odd favour. She would arrange their flowers, find an extra pillow and offer a helping hand if they got out of bed. Some of the other nurses were stand offish and barked: Wait a minute, I’m busy," if interrupted.


Katie saw that old Mrs Sharples had let her glasses fall on the floor and didn’t like to ask the sister at the foot of the bed to pick them up. Katie went over, plonked them in her hand and asked:

"Are you OK Mrs Sharples? Can I get you another pillow?"

"No thanks, dear but the lady in the corner hasn’t moved all morning."

It was the end of her shift but Katie swept across the ward, took a swift look, pressed the call button for help and drew the curtain around the bed.

And for romance


He reached his hand out, touched her breast and was thrilled to the core.

(What does that do for the reader?)


He reached out his hand tentatively and drew back as she opened her eyes. She closed them again and this time, more decisively he put his hand on her bare shoulder and moved it down. She trembled but kept her eyes closed and stayed close. Do I dare, he thought as his hand slid under he dress and pushed it down revealing the hardening nipple. He found he was breathing very hard.

Better? Well certainly better than ‘thrilled to the core’.

As in most guidelines on writing, this holds good most of the time – not all of the time.

If you want to hone your skills in this direction and fear that you may be one of the tell-brigade, begin by ensuring that you use the active voice and punch in a piece of meaningful dialogue early on.

To enhance conflict read your story through and ask yourself about the main man or woman in the story: what does he really want? Or: what does she really want?

Once that is established in fewer than twelve words put something in the way as an obstacle which they have to overcome.

How do you do that? Use your imagination. That’s why you are a writer.

Variety… entertainment, and originality is what editors look for.



If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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