What “Show, don’t tell” really means

It’s summer right now, but in just a few weeks, we’ll be back in classes here at Elon. I have media writing students this fall, and since they write a lot, I give a lot of feedback. Most evenings, you’ll find me at my kitchen table with my purple pen writing the same thing in the margins of most papers: Show, don’t tell. But what does this really mean?

  • Describe settings in detail: I can tell you that it was hot. But I can make you appreciate how hot it was by telling you that the singer was pouring sweat as she grabbed the mic stand, while the audience was fluttering impromptu fans made from the program. This isn’t always appropriate, but when the environment is important enough to mention, it’s often worth a sentence to describe.
  • Convey attitude through action: I can tell you the speaker was passionate about zebra mussels. Or I can show you just how passionate he was by saying He pounded the podium, loudly saying “invasive species are destroying our ecosystem.”
  • Convey attitude through quotation: Beginning writers tend to over-quote, or under-quote, but when a quote has picturesque language in it, it’s a good time to use it. Compare “The coach said the team was disappointing” with “We may be the worst team in America, right now,” the coach said.
  • Use impact to illustrate statistics: In text, if you are telling me the city property tax rate is going up, tell me how much more someone who has a median value home will pay. Even better, online, include a quick calculator that lets people figure out how much more their own bill will be.

One comment

  1. Pingback: What “Show, don’t tell” really means « Tax Rate Calculator

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