When did it become OK for writers to call us lazy?
I know, I'm a writer, and so are you, so this might seem out of left field.
If it doesn't, it might be because you think I'm going to tell you that you're lazy because you don't write every day.
But this post is for the reader in you, and to writers who assume their readers are lazy.
So I’ll ask again, in a bit more detail: When did it become OK for us to accept the title of "lazy reader" and for writers to pander to us as if we were lazy?
Whenever summer hits, I crank up my reading habits.
I normally read a chapter before I go to bed, every day. But the past few months, I've been making a conscious effort to read like I did when I was in elementary school.
Recently, I saw my dad. He picked my fiance and I up for a lunch trip to Panera. (Stay with me, this gets across something important!)
Every time I see him, he hands me a pill bottle full of quarters, and this time was no different. As I walked towards his car, and entered the front seat, my dad passed me a pill bottle of quarters. “Here’s some laundry money,” my dad said.
I’ve stopped trying to tell my dad that he doesn’t need to give me the quarters, because every week, he gives them to me, with a big, humble smile.
On the way to Panera, as we cruised in his car, he said, "Gina, I remembered the other day when you used to get awards for reading. Do you remember that?"
I thought for a few moments, "You know, I sort of do, but only pieces of it."
"In Elementary school, they would set the goal of reading a certain amount of books each month," he said. "And every month, you'd double it, easily.”
"In fact," he said. "You would tell me, 'Dad, I can't come down stairs to watch TV with you until I read for an hour, but maybe two."
I smiled, and looked down at my feet. Then, I looked in my passenger mirror at the reflection of my fiance, who was beaming from dimple to dimple in the back seat.
"You used to win trophies for reading so much," my dad said.
Now, before you leave this blog post thinking, “Why did I just read about your dad bragging about you?” let me tell you why I wrote this as a story.
1. You're not a lazy reader, and I won't pander to you as if you were one.
When you're writing a story, you SHOW the story. You don't TELL it.
It’s the #1 writing lesson taught.
In fact SHOW vs TELL has been taught in creative writing classrooms and workshops for as long as creative writing classrooms have been around.
What would it have looked like if I TOLD you about it instead?
"My dad told me I used to win a lot of awards for reading. When my fiance heard, he was proud of me, and I was proud that I used to read so much, even as a young kid."
Ugh... Now please pretend you didn't read that.
If I had written that, I'd be assuming you were a lazy reader, and I refuse to do that.
You could tell my fiance was proud, because I used the word "beaming," and because it followed my father talking about the awards. And I showed my dad talk about all the awards, which showed you he remembered them all, and that there "a lot" of awards. Plus, I told you about the quarters, because it gives you more insight into my dad. He’s caring, and always wants to help out. That’s why one of the many reasons he still remembers how I used to tell him I needed to read before I watched TV.
So... when did the second story, the "TELL" story, become OK? When did we stop craving description in writing, and dialogue, so we can imagine the room too?
Don’t let yourself get caught up in telling your story, when you could show us the world.
2. Every time you write, you should pretend it's being read on the radio.
A few weeks ago, I taught at a young girl empowerment camp named "The Art of Becoming an Adolescent Girl." While I was there, I gave each of the girls an object from a bag of mystery items. (Yes, I'm going to tell you about this experience, instead of show you. But only for the sake of space!)
An exercise we worked on together was where they picked a random object out of a bag, and they had to write down as many descriptive words as they could about the object, without using any words contained in the object. They named colors, and shapes, and compared their objects to the size of other objects.
I reference the quote from Bobby Flay that I talked about a few weeks ago in my Food Network article. I said, "Writing is like always being on the radio. No one can see what you see. You have to be as descriptive as possible so that others can see what you see. If you're not descriptive enough, they might think it was something different. Two of these objects are black and cotton. But a sock is different than a hat."
It's the same when you choose to tell a story vs show one.
You need to paint the words onto the paper, to show a scene, or character, or world to your readers.
When you tell a story, you're making more assumptions about your readers than when you show.
You assume they can't figure out the lessons you're teaching them on their own.
You assume they wouldn't be able to read the story, and derive the meaning you intend.
You're assuming you have to tell them what to think, because they can't do it without you.
You assume they already know what the room looks like, or what people look like, food smells like or tastes like, or that even if they don’t, it doesn’t add anything to the story to give the reader that information.
Of the books I’ve read this summer, at least half of them are telling me everything that’s happening, instead of showing me. And it’s really disappointing.
But I believe in writers.
I have read just as many books this summer that are beautiful, and poetic, and give me lots of juicy dialogue to eat up and think about. (David Sedaris is by far the best author on the list.)
Have you been guilty of calling your audience lazy? How did you change your writing to make a difference the next time around? What are some exercises you use to make sure you’re descriptive and helpful?