Attend any writing group or writing class and you will probably discuss rules for writers. These are usually some simple things to remember that you can easily jot down in a notebook. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction or preposition. Show, don’t tell, etc. These rules can be helpful only if they become tools in your every day writing practice, things that you can use to profitably analyze your own work. They can be discouraging when someone else uses them to evaluate your work without explanation.

Here’s my book on Reedsy Discovery:

I was thrilled to get a 4 star review by an accomplished steampunk author, Jessica Lucci.

Her work is an inspiration! I just started her first book and it is thrilling and everything I would wish in a steampunk novel. A four star review is pretty great on Reedsy discovery, and I’m really proud of my book and thrilled that she read it. If you go down to the bottom of the page there is only one comment:

It’s a unique idea and a nail-biter of a premise. What concerns me most of the habit of “telling” rather than “showing,” especially in the character development. The beginning with Talia is particularly hard to get through, because the reader gets so little of who Talia is.

This really bummed me out, and perforated my happiness at getting a good review from an author I admire. It’s also kind of an accurate assessment, especially if you just read the sample chapter I placed into the Reedsy page. There is information coming from all sides, my character’s memory, an article she read, general narrative descriptions of the city and environment that aren’t really connected to the narrator. There story is filled with an onslaught of sensation and information which doesn’t really come from the character’s direct experience. You might also hear the phrase “info dump” when discussing this with other writers, but I really don’t like that term.

However, by TELLING instead of showing or at least moving back and forth between them, I get through huge amounts of detail really quickly. I can situate the characters in their world and describe it in detail. The world feels full and complex by the time we descend to follow the main character and find out her thoughts and what she is doing. In this first chapter she is riding an elevated train around the city. I think of the camera soaring above the train, showing us the city skyline and the bustle of pedestrians and businesses. We look out over the water and see ships sailing in the Hudson. Finally we join the main character in the subway and find out what her thoughts and goals are. Telling separates the narrator from the character. Telling allows the narrator to do anything, to move out over the water or between the buildings. The narrator is a separate character, although they don’t have a personality or goals. They are a silent ally of the protagonist but they must still be free to have their own story, and that is what telling really is.

It’s not that the commenter was wrong about their assessment of my sample chapter, or that “Show Don’t Tell” is a bad rule of thumb to use. The important thing is to remember that a rule is a writer’s tool to be shaped, controlled, deconstructed and reassembled to their liking. A rule is not an evaluation or judgement of quality. Show Don’t Tell is a great rule, but only if you can use it, destroy it, rewrite it to your liking. If someone uses a writer’s rule as criticism of your book, just ignore it. Tools are meant to be used, not used for evaluation.