This advice is very dear to my heart, for as an editor I find myself suggesting it to nearly every writer I meet. It is age-old wisdom, handed down from teacher to student since the dawn of time (or thereabouts).
“Show, don’t tell.”
The essence of this advice is that, wherever possible, you should focus on creating illuminating description (show) rather than flat-out explaining things (tell). The main reason behind it is that it helps the writer to engage with the story in such a way that encourages realistic moments and characters and a consistent perspective; these cradle the reader inside the story world so that they feel like an essential part of it—almost as if they are living the story.
“Tell” can occur through use of a single word or a series of sentences.
My favorite piece of writing advice is this:
When my creative writing professor first recommended it to our class, I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from my chest. I had been in the habit of listening in on other people for years, and always felt pretty guilty about it. As he spoke, I suddenly realized that there was nothing to feel guilty about. It wasn’t eavesdropping, after all. It was research!
So, why spy?
Listening in on other people’s conversations can give you inspirations for new stories and new characters, for one thing. More importantly, it gives you a better understanding of natural speech cadences and dialog progression. There is nothing like listening to two people having a real conversation to make you realize three key elements of writing interesting dialog: