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Show, Don’t Tell

Allow Your Reader to “See”

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When writers “Show,” rather than “Tell,” they use words to create images that help readers “see” what is being described, as if projecting images onto a reader’s mental movie screen.

Our senses, such as vision, are how we as humans experience the world around us, so “Showing” often makes a stronger connection with readers, especially in personal essays or in creative writing.

Three Key Ways To Help You “Show”

1. Be Specific

In a macro sense, being specific has to do with not generalizing. For example, if you want to show the reader your residence hall, you have to evoke details that make it your residence hall. You can’t rely on what the reader knows generally about residence halls.

In a micro sense, being specific has to do with exact language and precision. Mark Twain said that the difference between any word and the right word “’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Gustav Flaubert coined a term: “le mot juste” – the exact word. The exact word means that you convey precisely what you want the reader to see and you do it in a way that is fresh, clean, concise, and accurate.

Think about it: Do you mean red or scarlet or maroon? Did the wind blow or did it slap? Choose precise nouns and active verbs. You may push your exactness further and particularize those nouns and verbs with strong modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, phrases, clauses), but don’t overdue it.

One adjective often is better than two if it is specific.

2. Illustrate

Turn the abstract into the concrete. Use anecdotes (short stories), examples, or description. Abstract applies to words such as “good,” “bad,” “love,” “beauty,” or “anger.” Such words aren’t tangible. We can’t see them, touch them, taste them.

But as a writer, you want to illustrate exactly what kind of “good” or “beautiful” you mean, and you do this through concrete details: an action, a physical detail – something that the reader can “see.”

3. Tap the Senses

Use fresh language that evokes sight, sounds, smells, taste, and touch to connect with readers. Description doesn’t have to be flowery; it can be concise and simple (in fact, concise and simple is usually better).

The woman was sick. She didn’t look lively at all. She showed symptoms of illness. She clearly was not herself.

This is generalized language; here, the writer is telling us what a sick woman is. “Sick,” “lively,” and “not herself” are abstracts. But readers want to know this woman’s particular version of “sick,” so you as the writer must strive to convey it.

Revised Example
The woman curled up on the bed, unmoving. A sticky film covered her half-closed eyes. Her once shiny brown hair appeared tangled and matted. She breathed with a harsh, rattling sound.

This is showing a sick person. These details convey a specific kind of sickness, not a general, abstract one. Now we can see (and hear) this woman. These concrete, particular details elevate the writing from generic to bold.

Practice Revising to “Show”

Try revising these ‘telling’ sentences in ways that will help them ‘show.’ Consider: How can you make the reader “see”?

  1. The kitchen was a mess. It looked like no one had cleaned it for a while.
  2. The house was old. It didn’t look like anyone cared for it.
  3. My mother is a caring person. She has a great passion for life.

Works consulted in the creation of this handout: Goodman, Richard. “In Search of the Exact Word.” The Writer’s Chronicle 37.1 (Sept. 2004): 54-59

Last revised: 07/2008 | Adapted for web delivery: 04/2021

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