Show and Tell

An empty Apple Store? Hah! You must be dreaming.

Last week, my wife and I attended “Curriculum Night” at our sons’ school. That’s where the two of us and our kids visit their classrooms and they get to show us around. We see their desks, artwork on the walls, projects on the computer, and all that other cool stuff. It’s actually a blast and the kids seriously look like they’re about to explode with excitement as they show us around. The only downside is that for some reason, it’s always 99 degrees out and more humid than the Amazon.

As I was looking around my oldest son’s classroom (he’s in 3rd grade), a poster on the wall caught my eye. It was a chart written by his teacher, entitled, “Show, Don’t Tell.” Now, as a writer, this is one of the 10 Writing Commandments. (Huh, that gives me an idea for yet another fun post…). Basically, don’t tell your readers something, show them. I don’t remember learning this writing lesson until much later in school, so I was happy to see that 3rd Graders are getting introduced to it.

Many times, we easily forget this one probably because that’s just not how most people think. It’s easier to just spell things out directly. We’re writers, we naturally share information. And if you’re a journalist, you’re taught to get right to the point. But whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, there’s a huge advantage to this style of writing. Showing something can hook your readers faster.

The rule applies to most things in real life too. Oh, you just bought the latest iPhone? Good for you. No, I’m not jealous. Much. So what makes it so incredibly awesome that I really need to run out and buy it? Oh, it has some aritifical intelligence thing called Siri? Yeah, sounds kinda cool. It can take HD movies? Okay. It can blah blah blah blah blah? You can talk until you’re blue in the face, but the second you physically take out your iPhone and show me how Siri works, well, wow, that’s when I start taking out a second mortgage so I can go get one myself! Showing is just infinitely more powerful than telling.

Telling: The Apple Store at the mall is insanely packed every Friday night.

There’s nothing wrong with the above sentence. It gets to the point, includes basic info and you’re in and out quickly. But does it really put you there? Do you have a feeling for what “insanely packed” really means?

Showing: If you brave the Apple Store at the mall this Friday, be forewarned. You’ll need Sir Lancelot’s armor and the patience of a┬áKindergarten┬áteacher. Sardines have more room in a tin can than customers jockeying for position at the counter for a shot at the latest iPhone. If you leave with a gadget in hand, you’re lucky. If you make it to the exit without a black eye, consider yourself blessed.

The above description just puts the reader more in the frame of mind with how crazy crowded (and brutal) the store can get. It paints a picture rather than just states a fact. Granted, you can very easily swing too much to the other side. If your entire article is 100% “show,” you’re going to be slowing things down way too much and probably lose your readers. So don’t overdo it. Find the perfect balance between showing and telling.

Basically, it’s the writing equivalent of “stop to smell the roses.” In life, if you don’t stop to smell the roses, you’ll miss some of the most beautiful moments. You’ll be too busy rushing to an end that you never take the time to truly live. Spend too much time just enjoying things and you’ll quickly be in hot water, though. So find that perfect balance, both in your writing and in your life.


2 comments on “Show and Tell
  1. Brian Kelly says:

    And showing is exactly what Apple does in their commercials and why I think they’re so successful.

    Compare an iPhone commercial to an Android commercial. Which one actually shows you how to use the phone and what can be done with it? Which one shows you a cyber punk future with somebody breaking into an armored vehicles to get at a phone that’s really thin?

    • Andrew says:

      Hah. Exactly! Great example of showing (something relevant) vs. telling a (maybe?) story.