The man stepped onto the bus

London Bus

Who cares if the man stepped onto the bus?

Anyone who’s ever tried to learn more about writing will have come across the writing rule ‘show don’t tell’. It’s a tip that can lead to frustration – especially in a world where so much information is obtained from visual media.

Because people are so used to absorbing information from TV, movies and visual advertising (like billboards and magazines) that use very few words and a lot of imagery, it seems logical that when we write a story we might describe the visual only:

‘The man stepped onto the bus.’

This sentence tells the basic fact of an action. It may even be all that is needed to keep the story moving forward. But I would argue that if the only significance of this action is to get the man on the bus, then you don’t need it all. Cut it out and simply start the next paragraph with the man already on the bus. The fact he got on the bus will be inferred by the reader.

Things should not be shown or told when there is nothing to show or tell. The last thing you want to do is to make something out of nothing:

‘The man, fraught with unprecedented normality, moved his left foot to the first step of the bus’s entrance. He didn’t ponder the significance of this action, because there was none to be pondered. Nevertheless, he moved his right foot hence. A wave of no change washed over him as the bright sunlight hit his face. The warmth might have reminded him of his mother, but it didn’t.’

If, however, there is some significance to his stepping onto the bus, then that should be described.

‘Already on edge from the previous night’s encounter, the noisy hum of chatter and music that greeted the man as he climbed the steps of the bus made him rethink his decision to go to work.’

‘Show don’t tell’ is about explaining the why, as well as the what. It describes reactions, and smells and thoughts and emotions and reason. It explains things which cannot be seen and adds a deeper level of empathy and understanding to a story.

Grammar Police!

Wherever appropriate, correct grammar and syntax should be incorporated into advertising and copywriting. When correct grammar is used, sentences tend to be less confusing and the intended meaning is clearer. However, it is not always necessary.

Copywriting and advertising will usually have two goals 1) send a clear message and 2) compel the reader to act.

As such, advertising copy should more closely reflect conversational speech than the Oxford English Grammar book – but do try to avoid common grammatical mistakes such as split infinitives and lost apostrophes.

Write convincing characters

People really only have one view of the world, and that is their own. Although as humans we have the rare gift of empathy, giving us an insight into the way others think, we can only truly know the world from our own unique perspective.

So, with this limitation, how can we as writers create believable, meaningful and interesting characters that are different to themselves?

There are a couple of exercises that I like to do to get me thinking about characteristics outside of my own. These can either be done in your head while you’re in the shower or written down.

Exercise 1: The opposite argument

Think of something you believe strongly. This might be climate change science, religion, the fact the sky is blue, communism’s inferiority, or that cats are better than dogs. Once you have done this grab a pen and paper (or keyboard) and:

  1. Begin to write a dialogue-based argument starting with your point of view. Call the characters ‘1’ and ‘2’.
  2. Continue the discussion/argument by arguing both points of view.
  3. Be convincing on both sides of the argument. Genuinely challenge your existing point of view and don’t use cliché arguments as they are too easy.
  4. Bring the argument to its conclusion. There may be a winner, or ‘1’ and ‘2’ may agree to disagree.
  5. Look at the dialogue you have written. Look at the way you have written the opposing argument. Do you have the basis of a new character?

Forcing yourself to consider opposing views can put you into the mindset of other people. This can be a powerful tool when writing characters.

Exercise 2: Write someone you know

Think of a person you know who has a distinctive character or style. It may be a fictitious character from a book or TV. Have a normal conversation with that person:

  1. Write out the dialogue for a regular conversation – about ‘lost keys’, a broken relationship or the new hardware store that’s opened up around the corner.
  2. Capture the voice of the known person or distinctive character in the dialogue. How would that character respond in this mundane conversation?
  3. Add a point of action – make something happen in the scene – someone breaks a glass or a horse jumps in through the window.
  4. How do the characters respond?
  5. Do you have the crux of a scene or character now?

By putting a character known to you into a situation they wouldn’t normally be in you may find yourself with a solid basis for a new character or scene.


Use more contractions!

Copywriting should usually use correct English, but rarely does it require formal English.

Many writers believe that writing for the public requires the Queen’s English and that it somehow makes the writing seem more professional or correct. This is not the case. When reading, most people want to read words the way they speak. This includes the use of contractions.

Consider the following sentence:

“We are looking for smart, talented people who love a challenge. If you are charismatic, engaging and love to laugh then you will find yourself at home with us.”

The sentence above has not used any contractions and as a result sounds quite stilted when read. Compare it to the similar sentence below:

“We’re looking for smart, talented people who love a challenge. If you’re charismatic, engaging and love to laugh then you’ll find yourself at home with us.”

The second sentence not only flows better and reads more quickly, it also uses fewer words to better effect – an important goal with any writing. Unless you wish to emphasise one half of the contraction, such as WE are, or we ARE, then “we’re” will usually suffice.

Consider the difference between:

Don’t miss out!


Do not miss out!

Is it just me, or does the first version sound like a friendly tip, and the second like a dictatorial order?

Be careful not to get too blasé with contractions, though, as some contractions can come across as too casual or even confuse readers.

Contractions best to avoid

  • Any contractions of ‘have’ (e.g. should’ve, must’ve) as these are sometimes difficult to read and can be too casual.
  • Who’re (most people don’t say this, and it looks like ‘whore’ on the page).
  • Double contractions (e.g. she’d’ve) as these are colloquialisms.
  • Most of the contractions of ‘had’ and ‘would’ (e.g. what’d, when’d, how’d etc.). These can look odd when written and can sometimes look like other words (e.g. I’d, she’d, we’d). These may work if they are to be spoken, rather than read (e.g. a radio ad).

Saving teh planet with an alternative definite

It seems to me that we are going about this the wrong way.

There are so many people in the world mistyping the word “the” as “teh” that the good monkeys at autotype automatically correct it for you. Think of the number of times this word is mistyped per hour across the globe. I don’t know but I’m going to estimate: a gazillion. Every one of those gazillion (approximate) times people type ‘teh’ a little chip in their computer goes whirrrr and the ‘teh’ magically becomes ‘the’. Wow. Fabulous. Amazing. The future is now.

But unfortunately… the future is now. That means we don’t really have any trees left, and our baby seals are being clubbed to death, and the Gulf of Mexico looks like chocolate pudding and smells a bit like the Queen. Our environment is dying/not at all well.

The solution – Get rid of the automatic correction and adopt ‘teh’ as an alternative definite article. Obvious conundrum – ‘alternative’ and ‘definite’ kind of contradict each other. To the point that if alternative walked in on definite in the shower, existence would be sucked into a cataclysmic astrological quagmire and all that green tea I drank would be for nothing.

But think about it… if we accepted ‘teh’ in place of ‘the’ we could prevent the gazillion computers going whirr a gazillion times an hour, surely that must prevent some significant bagful of CO2 entering the atmosphere.


Now who’s with me?

Note – Number of times during the writing of this article where I wrote the word ‘teh’ only to have the computer automatically correct it to ‘the’ which I then had to change back to ‘teh’: eight (8).