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June 10, 2015

I get a lot of grief from tell, even though I’m very aware of it. In my own work, where I thought I was clean of most, if not all tell, guess what? When I got into that deep edit recently of Treasure Of The Umbrunna, the editor found plenty.


As an editor myself, tell was one of the largest hurdles I had to overcome in my own writing. When I see it in other writing, I often cringe.


Everybody’s heard the old mantra, “What are you talking about? What about telling a story? Haven’t you ever heard your mother or father tell you a bedtime story?”

Well… by telling you a story, they’re narrating a story to you, reading it either from text, reciting it from memory… or making it up. They’re relating something to you, telling you something.

That’s what telling really means by that.

When it comes to reading a story yourself, when the author tells it to you in text, they’re relating the story ideas to you in a non-active and passive way. In other words, a disembodied voice other than the character is telling you about what is happening rather than the character showing it to you through their actions.

Example: Mary felt giddy when she met John.

Why is that tell? Why is that not active?

Mary felt: The author is telling you Mary felt giddy. The author shouldn’t tell you that.

Mary should show you that through her actions or thoughts.

Also, when is passive because it’s vague and she could’ve met him a year or a few seconds ago. Who knows? The next few or previous sentences may will or have explained that, but then that addition to the sentence becomes moot.

How about this: Mary shook John’s hand. An electric shiver ran up her arm. Wow! This guy is hot!

Okay, now it’s active. We know when it took place. Mary made clear and showed you what she felt, not the author.

It’s easy to get lazy and just write it down in the simplest terms we know. I do it all the time and have to clean up the mess afterward. I try to look for key tell words like felt, wondered, seemed, etc, but don’t always see them because my mind fills in blanks of what I’m thinking rather than what I’m reading.


At the writer’s group meeting the other evening, I read a wonderful historical story chapter, simultaneously, while the lady read it to the group. The story has potential and a lot to like. However, it has one major problem. I made corrections and gave up after the first three paragraphs. After that, I continued only to find more of the same. There was no further point correcting the same thing over and over again.

The entire narrative was tell, with no active voice. Told in omniscient, third-person point of view, the voice came from a disembodied presence. Even the dialogue tags were told, rather than shown.

I gave an honest, critique of what she needed to do to fix it, but I have a feeling she’s never going to give me her pages to read again. If she does, I’ll be very happy!

You cannot tell an entire story with no active voice. It comes of flat and emotionless – It gives no emotional investment to the characters or the reader.


Tell has been my nemesis for a long time and it clicks when I see it in other people’s work, but my own, fugeddaboudit.

They’re not called “other” editors for nothing!

Plus, editors know better than to edit their own stuff. There are a few that can, but that’s not common. At least I can admit I’m partially blind to it, though I don’t do as bad as some writers. I know my weaknesses.

I’ve tried to explain it to you in as simple terms as I can. For someone who didn’t have a clue what it meant for years, I hope this has been a help to clarify it for you.

If you have any more questions about it, feel free to contact me here or at my other e-mail at

Happy writing!


3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2015 8:16 pm

    As a friend of mine is fond of saying “Holy crumpets!” Yes, Fred, “the tell” is my nemesis as well. First draft, I ignore it. The million rewrites that come next? Not so much. That’s when I have time to think about how I want to show what’s going on. I guess all those “feels” are simply place markers for when I get the chance to sit down and focus on raising the curtain and getting on with the “show”.

    • June 11, 2015 2:39 am


      Welcome! You are right. I usually just write it out first then worry about cleaning it up later. Once in a while, I stop myself when I start to write a felt or another tell word, but usually, I just like to get it all out first, then worry about fixing it later. I let the muse flow. Of course, I’m a lot better at clean writing than I used to so I usually have less mess in the end, but it’s far from perfect. Just ask the crowd at the writer’s group! They know.

      Thanks for the comments!


      • June 11, 2015 3:33 am

        I hear you on that. Wendi and I will be doing that soon ourselves. It’s cool to see how you’ve grown (the general “you”), both through past books and rewrites. The clean writing gets faster each time.

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