Some of the first writing advice I ever got was this: show; don’t tell.
In fiction writing, here’s a sentence that tells: The winter day was unusually cold.
I’ve simply told my reader that it’s cold.
A better type of sentence is one that shows: Jennifer wrapped the wool scarf tightly around her neck and layered herself with a flannel shirt, wind jacket, and parka.
The showing example allows the reader to make deductions that it was unusually cold—without being directly told.
So what about nonfiction writing? Just like fiction, our nonfiction writing needs to include two types of writing: telling writing and showing writing.
With telling writing, we use our words to tell, explain, teach, break down, or expand. We are giving the reader information.
With showing writing, we are making the ideas come alive by showing her.
We need both types of writing in our nonfiction manuscripts, but we should have more showing writing than telling writing.
We’ll look at examples from my book, What a Wife Needs from Her Husband.
The first example of showing writing: the personal story.
One of our first plane trips to Scott’s hometown in Minnesota illustrated that we had a long way to go toward understanding one another. As we landed in Minneapolis, we looked out the window, and Scott excitedly announced, “That’s the Metrodome!” I knew by the way he stared at me expectantly that whatever he had just told me was a huge deal. And I remembered that he had told me that the largest mall in America was right there in Minneapolis, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t called it the Metrodome. I had no idea what he was talking about, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say, so I went with the most honest response I could come up with: “What’s that? And where’s the mall?”
Now that we’ve been married many years and I have learned the importance of the Minnesota Vikings, I’m surprised Scott didn’t send me back to the South then and there. He reached deep down inside himself and calmly explained to me the wonders of the Metrodome. Meanwhile, we completely bypassed the mall, unbelievably to me, to drive three hours north to his hometown. I have to commend Scott for his patient understanding of my lack of knowledge about the Metrodome. And I’ll commend myself for not making a fuss about being in the same city as the largest mall in America and not even going inside!
The personal story is my favorite type of way to show, not tell, and I think it’s often the most effective. If you look at my excerpt, you see the first two paragraphs are a personal story about my husband and me misunderstanding one another. These paragraphs engage my reader, inviting her in to imagine my misunderstanding with my husband and to trigger some memories about her own marital misunderstandings.
Notice how much more effective these paragraphs are than a telling sentence such as, “This chapter is going to be about how important it is for couples to understand each other.”
After the personal story, you’ll see this paragraph:
From the day we commit to our spouses, we need to learn to understand them. The process begins when we’re dating and will continue every day of our marriages. This chapter will help you understand some unique aspects of a woman’s makeup.
Yes, you will need to tell your reader things as I do here where I tell my reader that spouses need to understand each other.
The second example of showing writing: the definition.
One of the most prevalent needs of a wife is for her husband to understand her. We should begin by agreeing on the definition of the word understanding. Understanding in this chapter does not mean that your wife makes complete sense to you or that her actions are completely logical to you. It doesn’t mean that you have her all figured out.
When I refer to understanding your wife, I mean that you accept her with love, compassion and sympathy. It’s the sense behind this comment: “I understand that you’ve had a hard day. Do you want to talk about it?” Understanding your wife means being empathetic by identifying with her situation, feelings, and thoughts.
After the personal story and one short telling paragraph, I move into more showing writing with the next two paragraphs by using a definition, a second type of showing writing. You can use your own definition, dictionary definition, or consider Greek or Hebrew definitions when dealing with Scripture.
The third example of showing writing: Scripture.
Let’s look at what God says in 1 Peter 3:7 about understanding: “In the same way, you husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way [with great gentleness and tact, and with an intelligent regard for the marriage relationship], as with someone physically weaker, since she is a woman. Show her honor and respect as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered or ineffective” (Amp).
Scripture is our third type of showing writing. I could have told my reader, “God tells husbands it’s so important for them to be understanding and to show their wives respect.” However, when I show my reader Scripture, my writing has more impact.
So these three types of showing writing make our writing more effective by engaging the reader:
- Personal story
Take a look at a draft of something you’ve written recently. Make sure your showing writing outweighs telling writing. Do you need to make some revisions?
We’ll look at some more examples of “Show; don’t tell” next time!
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