“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
– E.L. Doctorow (American author of the novel Ragtime, and other works)
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
– Anton Chekhov (Russian writer, 1860–1904)
“In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel . . . instead of telling us the thing is ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description.
– C.S. Lewis (British author of the Narnia series)
These famous writers – one American, one Russian, one British – agreed: the trick of a good writer isn’t to “tell” your readers what to feel . . . but to help them feel it (or see it) for themselves.
Here are some “before and after” exercises by Mary-Lane Kamberg, author of The I Love To Write Book and director of a summer workshop for young writers.
After you’ve read them . . . take a story or poem you’ve written. Is there a place where you could change (or improve) something that just “tells” us something outright (“The moon is shining”) to a richer description (“the glint of light on broken glass”) . . . to show us?
Show, Don’t Tell (examples)
1. Brooke was afraid to get on the plane.
Better: Brooke hesitated at the opening to the jet way. She looked back at her father on the other side of the glass.
2. Amy hurt Jennifer’s feelings.
Better: Jennifer turned away, fighting back tears.
3. I was worried when no one answered the phone.
Better: The sound of the phone ringing buzzed in my ear. I paced the length of the room several times, waiting for someone to answer.
4. Brandon was confused.
Better: Brandon looked at the room number. He looked at his class schedule and then back at the room number. He cocked his head and shrugged.
5. The monster was strong.
Better: The monster wrapped its claws around the trunk of the old oak and pulled it out by the roots as if it were a skinny dandelion in the lawn.
6. Martin is sick.
Better: Martin coughed again. He shivered and pulled the blanket over his shoulders.
7. Becky was excited when the bus arrived.
Better: When Becky saw the bus, she jumped and clapped.
8. Clayton was heartbroken when his hamster died.
Better: Clayton sat on the floor and cradled the limp hamster to his chest. He rocked and rocked. His mother knelt beside him.
9. The room was too hot.
Better: Elizabeth dabbed the back of her neck with a handkerchief. Perspiration formed on the bridge of her nose. She picked up a magazine and fanned herself.
Activity for your “Idea Keeper” (Writing Notebook)
At the top of a page, write a sentence that describes something common:
(“George was tall.” “Mary was well-dressed.”)
Now . . . can you think of ways to describe that so we see it?
Try different ways of showing us. Try short ways and long ways. Funny and serious. Positive (the reader is supposed to like the person) and negative (we dislike that person).
Have fun with this! (And add to it over time when you think of new ways to describe common things or feelings.)