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Writing

This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library.

Show, Don't Tell

One of the best ways to make writing interesting is to follow one of writing’s basic tenets: “show it, don’t tell it.”  This is true to a greater extent for fiction and creative non-fiction, but also to a lesser extent for academic non-fiction. If you can paint a picture with your words so the reader can “see” a scene or “witness” an incident, he or she will be more engaged with the text and more likely to remember the message.  (A picture is worth a thousand words, right?)  Equally important, a reader is more likely to be persuaded that something is funny, mean, interesting, heart-breaking, character building, etc., if he can “see” the evidence of those qualities in a scene or description and come to the conclusion on his own. Just telling a reader that something is funny, mean, interesting, heart-breaking, character building, etc., is rarely persuasive.

A word of warning:  you cannot show everything in your story.  That would not only make it too long, it would also distract the reader from the main message and purpose of your tale, and ultimately bore him or her.  The key is to tell the things that are of no great importance to the story but are necessary to move the story along, and show the things that you want to make an impact on the reader.

In the following example, Dennis Jerz of Seton Hill University shows what we mean:

Writing is emotionally powerful when it engages the reader. Rather than classify and list all the emotions that you felt, use specific details that give the reader a reason to feel the emotions you want to express.

 

I'll never forget how I felt after Fido died. I was miserable.

 

Simply naming the feelings that you experienced (telling your reader what you felt) is not enough to create interest in the reader. You need to find a way to generate in your reader the same feelings that you experienced.

If I live for a thousand years, I'll never forget how utterly and terribly alone I felt after Fido died. I was so miserable that I thought I would die. Months and months went by, and it seemed that every little thing reminded me of him and made me wish things could be different. I don't know whether I am ever going to get over his death.

While the author has added details, those details merely assist the telling -- they don't actually give the reader a reason to love Fido and to suffer along with the writer.

Whenever puppies in the pet store window distracted me from the serious business of taking him for his walk, Fido growled, his little ears flattened against his scruffy head. Yet he always forgave me. Even after his hearing and sight faded, when he felt the leash click on his collar and smelled fresh air, he still tried to caper. He's been dead for three months now. This morning I filled his water bowl all the way to the top --just the way he likes it -- before I remembered.

The author does not need to tell the reader "I loved Fido and I still haven't come to terms with his death," because the paragraph contains specific details that show the depths of the relationship.

“Show Don’t (Just) Tell.”  [Weblog entry.]  Jerz’s Literacy Weblog.  Seton Hill University. 08 May 2000.  http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/creative/showing.htm).  14 Oct 2009. 

Writing Activities for Show Don't Tell

After reading the above information on outlining, attempt the writing activity below for further practice.