Improve writing with ‘What do I mean when I say’

When writing fiction, you almost always want to show rather than tell. By showing, you infer through a character’s actions or dialogue what one feels.

For example, Astonished, Laura said, “That’s not true, Dawn, you are very beautiful.” tells Laura’s feelings that she is astonished. You could instead show or infer it by writing Laura gasped. “That’s not true, Dawn, you are very beautiful.” The reader still knows that Laura is astonished, but by showing it, the text actually is more energetic and evocative.

Unfortunately, showing rather than telling doesn’t come natural for some, probably because in everyday speech we cut to the chase and tell. To write this way, you thus have to get into this frame of mind. You can do so by practicing this neat writing exercise: What do I mean when I say…

First, pick an emotion, such as happiness. Saying someone is happy in a story is telling.

Now think of a time when someone you know was happy, and in your mind observe their body. How do you know she is happy? Perhaps she is smiling. Or her eyes twinkle. Maybe her walk is carefree.

All of these physical gestures infer happiness. Write them down and save them for a story when you must show happiness in a character.

You can practice this exercise every day. Each morning, select a new emotion. Carry a pen and notepad with you through the day, and as you observe people expressing that feeling – at work, at the park during lunch, at the supermarket when you ran your errand, on television when an actor must portray that feeling – write down the physical gestures.

Soon you’ll have a collection of notes so that you never have to tell again.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.