Show Don’t Tell… Well Show Me What It Means

The rains are upon us once again as Mr. Squirrel tries to stay dry
The rains are upon us once again as Mr. Squirrel tries to stay dry

You know what one of my most hated writing sayings is?  “Show, don’t tell”… I still cringe at the thought of it.  Why do I hate that saying so much?  Well, all throughout my formative years of schooling no teachers, not one, explained what it meant.  I remember being in elementary school and going berserk on one of my essays because the teacher wrote “show, don’t tell”.  Perhaps I had a little anger management issue, but hey I was around ten.  And maybe I should explain a little better.  It was a lesson on revising and we had to keep revising our papers till we received a certain grade.  I don’t remember any other parameters though, just those two.  However, the only remark the teacher kept writing on mine was “show, don’t tell”.  After two or three tries, I asked her what she meant.  What did she say?  “I want you to show, not tell.”  Well, duh lady.  She gave no explanation.  No example.  No assistance whatsoever.  Just a broken record repeating what my eyes could clearly read.  Then she sent me on my way.  Back then the internet was in its infancy, so it wasn’t like I could google it.  I tried my hardest at what I thought was showing not telling, but that damn phrase kept reappearing at the top of my paper.  Over and over.  Till finally I had enough.  I slammed my beastly feet on the ground, grabbed my paper and shredded it into tiny little pieces letting them fall like snowflakes onto my desk as the teacher and class watched in astonishment.  Needless to say, I didn’t do so well in that lesson.

But the funny thing is over the course of schooling, including four years of college, no one ever explained it to me.  All I heard were variations of the whole “I want you to show and not tell” phrase.  That’s it.  How is someone supposed to fix their writing if they don’t have a freaking clue what you’re talking about?  Although, I’m not sure some of the teachers even knew what it meant.  All I have to say is thank goodness for the internet.

So what is “show, don’t tell”?  It seems so elementary, but I think many people are not sure.  I wasn’t.  Heck, I didn’t know till I was in my early twenties.  And even now that I know, I’m sure my writing still has “show, don’t tell” issues.  So yada yada what is it?  Well, it’s where you paint an image in the reader’s mind.  You use details, dialogue, imagery, metaphors, similes and more to make the story jump off the page.  I think the problem writers have, myself included, is striking a balance between too much detail and not enough.  I know I tend to lean on the not enough side (if my fourth grade story is any evidence).  But that’s where revising, editing and beta readers come in.  (Ah, so that’s what the teacher was trying to tell us back then.)  Those three things can make all the difference in your writing even if you struggle with the “show, don’t tell”.  I know it does in mine.  And if you want to know more about showing not telling here’s a couple of great sites to check out… Daily Writing Tips  and Grammar Girl.  They explain it way better than I ever could.  Good luck!


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