discussions genre stuff writing & publishing

Le Guin On Writing

An old article by Ursula Le Guin, but most certainly one worth linking to again (especially because I like the way she handles the myth of “show don’t tell”):

In his terse and cogent essay, “When Rules Are Made to be Broken ,” (LATBR, October 6, 2002), John Rechy attacks three “rules of writing” that, as he says, go virtually unchallenged in most fiction workshops and writing classes: Show, don’t tell — Write about what you know — Always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to. I read the piece cheering and arguing all the way.

The first two “rules” were developed in response to faults common in the writing of inexperienced writers — abstract exposition without concrete imagery, windy vagueness unsupported by experience. As guides for beginners, they’re useful. Expanded into laws, they are, as Rechy says, nonsense.

Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. (I make them read the first chapter of The Return of the Native, a description of a landscape, in which absolutely nothing happens until in the last paragraph a man is seen, from far away, walking along a road. If that won’t cure them nothing will.)

I find it particularly interesting how a lot of (often unpublished) writers seem to love to tell others what and what not to do, as if the art is about absolutes, about black or white, right or wrong. And I cringe when people can be so prescriptive.

They’ll cling to some of these basic, 101-styled myths (things like the above, but also uber-simple sentences, which possibly derive via business language and communication guides) that absolutely rips the heart and soul from storytelling. It often results in bland, lacklustre prose. So it’s good to see Le Guin attack some of these myths, and encourage those interested in creative writing to be more, well, creative.

Do read the rest of the article. She knows what she’s talking about.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

7 replies on “Le Guin On Writing”

Agreed. I’ve done a few writing workshops/classes now and they always tend to be all like “You must show your story, not tell it” and I sit there thinking, okay, so I get that you should use things that people can picture, but you are still telling them what to see. And especialy in fantasy, where the world is completly make believe, you need to tell them how to see it.


I can barely express how happy I am to read that. Those rules were handed down to me as holy writ. As may be clear from my fiction writing which has gone to the extreme of avoiding exposition at all costs. I’m wary of going to the other extreme of course but your post has left me feeling liberated from the draconian approach to exposition 🙂

I always thought that the “show don’t tell” mantra came out of warnings about using the passive tense. (i.e. show the character doing something, rather than tell of something having the character doing something to it). Either way, rules are there for breaking if the story so dictates.

I agree with Paul on Steering the Craft, it’s sublime, but then, all articles of Le guin on writing are pretty sublime.

I feel Show Don’t Tell is used too often by lazy critics/readers as a catch-all. If it truly is SDT, you can usually point out what exactly is wrong without even uttering those horrid words.

My personal peeve (red mist inducing, not pet) is a senseless, relentless worship of Strunk&White that forbids the use of passive and negative statements and the likes. S&W is a good little book, especially for a non-native like me who gets easily confused between the thats and whiches and whos and whoms and lacks the ease of a native speaker to stack up clauses within clauses and still make sense, but there are far too many people quoting from S&W like it’s the Bible (and yes, mostly unpublished and/or inexperienced writers) without realizing its main purpose is the writing of essays, not fiction, and that there *is* a difference.

Her “Language of the Night” is also brilliant. One of the first books I ever read then consciously tracked down in a first edition. It was so brilliant, I wanted to make sure to have a copy that would last forever.

I would like to note that Le Guin does not say, “Ignore ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘write what you know.'” She, in fact, writes, “As guides for beginners, they’re useful.” And they are.

All too often I read works by (mostly) young writers who tell me what to think of a character. If you need to tell me what to think, then you have not sufficiently breathed life into the character.

Writers who have a good handle on their craft can ignore those rules with impunity, not because those rules are meaningless, but because they understand what those rules are meant to impart. Writers, however, who ignore them simply because they don’t know better usually wind up with muddled anti-stories.

Comments are closed.