show, don’t tell


The following is an exchange of emails between a friend and myself from last night and this morning. (April 14-15, 2016)



I am rereading my own stuff, namely, my “autobiography.”

I think it illustrates an important aspect of writing one is supposed to learn, be taught: SHOW, don’t tell.






Do you mean, the reader should see it, feel it; you shouldn’t have to try to explain it through words?





What I mean it is:

One sees awful GENERIC writing all the time.

You get a communiqué from a relative or friend: “Having a great time in Paris … wonderful! … beautiful city … fascinating … we love it.”

Tell me WHAT makes Paris so wonderful in your experience and from your vantage point. Tell me something about:

What you are doing or enjoying. What you had for breakfast. A café you were at. An interesting person you met. A show you saw. A street you liked. Your hotel. What the service and staff are like. Where you have been and what you did there.

As Walt Whitman put it in a letter to a friend (1863): “don’t run away with [the] theme & occupy too much of your letter with it – but tell me mainly about all my dear friends, & every little personal item, & what you all do, & say &c.”

Here’s s what is said on Wikipedia:,_don’t_tell

Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to interpret significant details in the text. The technique applies equally to nonfiction and all forms of fiction ….

In other words, avoid the generic. Make what you want to convey come alive through details. Then the reader can figure out for himself or herself what it was about.

In writing, I try to work in details that come to mind. I feel that that’s what makes a piece interesting. I rely on memory, intuition, and a mental process of association in doing this.

It’s the particulars that give a piece of writing life. No experience, no person is quite the same as any other. That’s what makes life so interesting. And, most experiences aren’t plain vanilla, white bread stuff. People have funny idiosyncrasies. Funny things happen. Things don’t hew to the norm. There are all sorts of surprises, twists, and turns.

I feel that the little details make for interesting reading, make the piece credible, make it work, make it clear just what the experience was, make the story believable to the reader.

It makes you and what you have to say AUTHENTIC.

In my essay “Boyhood,” I could have said things like: “I had a happy childhood,” “I had a sad childhood,” “I loved baseball,” ‘I hated school,” “I had nice friends,” “my brother was mean to me,” “I loved music,” “I liked to visit my grandparents,” “my teachers were good,” “my teachers were bad,” and so on; and left it at that.

Instead, I have built my essay around carefully selected and minutely described particulars. It’s left to the reader to decide — make his or her own mental construct — what kind of childhood is being described and what he or she (the reader) might be inclined to think or feel based on the piece.

I do intend for words to be used to convey my experiences and meaning, of course, but not generic writing (aside from the occasional summary statement or editorial comment).


— Roger W. Smith

   April 2016

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