Show, Don’t Tell: Everything You Need to Know

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It’s time to start your college essays! You have a calendar of deadlines, due dates, and goals for your drafts. But one piece of advice keeps floating in your head: “show, don’t tell.” You may have heard this in English classes, but how can you actually do it effectively in a college essay? Read on to find out!

Click above to watch a video on the show, don’t tell.

What Does  “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean?

The concept of “show, don’t tell” is often attributed to Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Essentially, “telling” is what it sounds like. You, as a writer, tell the reader something. For example, “Jill was tall.”

“Showing” illustrates it. For example, “Jill had to duck through the door frame as she entered the room.”

Showing, rather than telling, adds interest and polish to your writing. It’s far more exciting to read about the way your stomach clenched before the championship game, your hands clammy and breath catching in your throat, than it is to read about how you “felt anxious.”

Showing, not telling, is especially important in your college essays. College essays almost always are limited by word count. Don’t waste words telling your readers things when you could convey the same thing, with much more excitement, by showing.

What is the Difference Between “Showing” and “Telling”?

As mentioned, showing illustrates your point, whereas telling just tells it. Take a look at the following examples:

I have always been a voracious reader. I love fantasy novels especially and the way they transport me to new worlds and places when the real world is just too challenging. Harry Potter always provided me an escape from the real world when I needed it most.

This is a fine explanation of the writer’s love of reading. But the writer is just telling us how much she loves reading. She is just telling us why she loves fantasy novels especially. There is no action, no immediacy, and certainly no illustration.

Now, look at an example of the writer showing us what she means instead:

My first time at a chiropractor was to fix a misaligned vertebrae. I had spent hours the night before hunched under my blankets with a flashlight, so my mom wouldn’t see a light on underneath my bedroom door, reading the last chapters of Harry Potter. I had forgotten about my bad grade on a math test, my messy bedroom, and my parents’ latest fight. Hunched under the covers, I could almost feel the warmth of the Gryffindor Common Room fireplaces. I felt the suspense as Harry, Ron, and Hermione battled their way through Hogwarts. Those couple hours of escape were well worth the early morning trip to realign my spine.

In this example, the writer brings a sense of immediacy. She frames her love of reading around a funny anecdote of needing to go to the chiropractor. She never tells us, “I love reading.” However, by showing us how she stayed up past bedtime, hunched under the covers to read, she shows us exactly how much she loves reading. 

Additionally, in the first example, the writer could have substituted Harry Potter with any book series and it wouldn’t have changed the writing at all. In the second example, she grounds her love of Harry Potter in specific examples and events. It adds intimacy and passion where before, there was none.

Not only is the second example more interesting to read, it gives us a better idea of who the writer is as a person. It gives us a glimpse into her life. Our writer has a sense of humor and a messy bedroom — details that would have felt out of place in the first examples are seamlessly incorporated in the second example.

Now, showing instead of telling doesn’t necessarily mean “longer,” “more details,” or “more words.” Take a look at the next two examples: similar word counts, but the first example tells and the second example shows

I have been playing soccer since I was eight years old. What started as a hobby, a thing to do every Saturday, has become a true passion. Now, I can’t imagine my life without my teammates who double as my best friends and the satisfaction I feel after playing a game I am proud of. The conference game was one of those games: I felt pride, happiness, and a deep sense of connection to my team. We had worked hard, and we had won. After the game, I felt so grateful that I managed to stick with soccer long enough to experience the community and accomplishment I felt.

Again, this is a perfectly acceptable explanation of the writer’s relationship with soccer. He tells us it is a passion of his. He tells us that his teammates are his best friends. But take a look at the difference when this author transforms this by showing, not telling:

If you had told me a decade ago that as an 18-year-old I would still be playing soccer, I wouldn’t have believed you. But as I rode the team bus home after the conference game, images flashed through my mind: the look on Benny’s face in the last minute that I immediately recognized as, “trust me, man. I got this.” The look on the goalie’s face as I faked him out to pass Benny the ball. Benny’s gorgeous shot in the upper left corner of the goal, and the roar of the team. My team. My family. All I could think on that bus ride was, thank God I stuck with this insane, demanding, amazing, sport.

Both of those examples are around 120 words. But the second example puts us directly in a moment: the bus ride home. As we read, we can see the images that the writer sees. Rather than telling us he trusts his team, we experience the look on Benny’s face that conveys complete brotherhood and trust. In the first example, he tells us about the sense of community he feels with his team. In the second example, he shows us. He shows us how his team roared when Benny made the shot. He shows us his contentment on the bus, surrounded by his teammates and family. 

It’s not a matter of adding extra words. The difference between showing and telling is in the excitement, action, immediacy, and intimacy of your writing.

How Do I  “Show, Don’t Tell” In a College Essay?

In a college essay specifically, it’s incredibly important to show instead of tell. Imagine: a college sets the prompt: “What is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?” How many essays do you think an admissions committee receives that starts with the following sentence: “The scariest thing I’ve ever done is…” ?

By showing instead of telling, you will not only be submitting better writing, you will be standing out from the crowd. 

Okay, you’re on board to show instead of tell, but how do you actually do it? There are a couple of steps that will help you.

  1. Answer the prompt. Brainstorm possible ways you could respond to the prompt. Give yourself plenty of options!
  2. Find the most vivid anecdotes and memories you can tell. Go through your brainstorm list. Which options allow for the most vivid and immediate storytelling? Which option gives you the most to write about?
  3. In media res. You may have learned this Greek term in English class: it means starting a story in the middle of the narrative, not at the beginning. Start writing from the climax of the event or in the middle of the action: this will grab people’s attention.
  4. Zoom out. Answer the broader parts of the prompt, include life lessons you want to include, etc.

This is a starting point to get you a first draft. It’s absolutely crucial to proofread, rewrite, redraft, and revise once you have a draft!

Let’s go through these steps answering the above prompt: “What is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?”

  1. Answer the prompt. An example brainstorm might look like this: performing a solo at my senior choir concert, coming out to my parents, reading my poem at an open mic night, going on my first roller coaster as a kid
  2. Find the most vivid anecdotes. From the above list, the option that draws the strongest emotions and taught me the most lessons was reading my poem at an open mic night.
  3. In media res. Instead of setting up the context of writing a poem and driving to the coffeehouse, I am going to start writing right at the moment I was in front of the mic with the lights shining on me. Maybe it sounds like this:I wondered briefly if the microphone could pick up the way my heart pounded. I squinted into the lights, trying to find my friends in the audience, but I could only see shadows. I inhaled deeply and looked down at the folded and unfolded piece of notebook paper in my hand: written on it was a piece of myself, a poem that, once I read it, would give the entire audience a glimpse into all the darkest, most personal parts of myself. I took another breath, and began to read.
  4. Zoom out. What other lessons and parts of that night do I want to make sure to include?As I read my poem, I felt the most intense feeling of catharsis I’ve ever experienced. I finished my piece and noticed tears falling down my cheeks. I looked up and realized my eyes had adjusted some; I could recognize my friends at the front, also crying. I realized, in that moment on stage, that letting people into my life and my heart could be pretty amazing after all.

Now, after those four steps, there is obviously more work to do. Maybe the prompts ask for specific details you have to find space to include. Maybe you feel really strongly about including certain background information. However, by starting your writing with a vivid description that shows instead of tells your experience, you have set yourself up really strongly as you continue to write and proofread!

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How to Improve My  “Show, Don’t Tell” Skills

One of the most reliable ways to improve all aspects of your writing, including and especially your show, don’t tell skills, is to read often and widely. Read novels, newspapers, magazines, articles, biographies: anything you can get your hands on. 

Reading how other authors write can provide inspiration, ideas, and exemplars for you in your own writing journey. In a few sections, we will provide some recommendations of authors and books that might help you!

More than passively reading, make sure you take an active role. Notice your favorite pieces and passages and ask yourself, “What is the author doing that makes this so good? How does this go beyond ‘telling’?” 

Don’t be shy with annotating, either! It’s a great idea to have a pen, pencil, or sticky notes with you when reading so you can star or highlight your favorite things you read. Another great idea is to take photos on your phone of your favorite passages. Then, when you are writing on your own, you can scroll through your favorite pieces of inspiration!

And, of course, the most foolproof way to improve is to practice. But how? Read on to find out.

How to Practice My  “Show, Don’t Tell” Skills

Practicing your “show, don’t tell” skills doesn’t have to wait until you start applying for colleges. In fact, it’s a great idea to work on honing your writing skills before you start applying for colleges is actually in your best interest. 

It’s best to practice writing skills, including and especially showing, not telling, without the pressure of college applications. Try freewriting or journaling. Write about things that interest you and matter to you without the specter of college admissions hanging over you. Try and have some fun while you write: try new things, practice writing from different points of view, or try some different genres — poetry, short stories, anything you can think of!

If freewriting isn’t your style, start with finding some writing prompts. There are tons of “writing prompts” you can look up online. Here are a few of our favorite writing exercises:

  • Find a different perspective: Choose a story you already know, and rewrite from a different point of view. What would Cinderella look like from the perspective of the stepsister? What about the story of Pandora’s box from the point of view of the box? There are tons of different directions you can take this!
  • Write a piece of flash fiction: This is a genre of short story that is 500 words of less. This is a great way to practice showing instead of telling. With such a tight word limit, every word matters!
  • Free write: Set a timer and write everything that comes to mind: no judgment, no stress, just stream of consciousness. This can be a great way to unlock ideas!
  • Imagine yourself in a specific setting: Recall a place you have been. Try and convey the sensory details of that place: what did it look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like? What feelings did it evoke? Work on showing, not telling, these descriptions.

The most important thing to remember is that writing is a muscle, so exercise it! Writing a little bit every day is the best way to improve.

Examples of “Show, Don’t Tell”

We’ve shown a couple examples of showing, not telling, throughout this article. In this section we are going to show two examples of writing that describe the same event – but we aren’t going to tell you which is “showing” and which is “telling.” See if you can figure it out by yourself!

Example 1:

As I made my pitch to city council, my heart pounded in my chest. I felt a flicker of doubt. Could I really make a speech to my city’s mayor? That was televised live? I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, and I began to speak. I shared with the council how, as a volunteer at the community center, I noticed young kids stuck at the busy intersection by our town’s main street as they waited for a break in traffic. I shared how I witnessed one too many close calls, where a car zoomed around the corner and had to slam on the brakes before they hit a child. I knew that lives were at stake, and I hoped to convey that to the council. Fast forward to a few months later: on my drive home from school this afternoon, a flashing crosswalk sign stopped me as a group of children crossed to go to after-school class at the community center. They smiled and waved at me as I waited for them to cross. As I waved back, I couldn’t stop the smile on my face even if I tried. 

Example 2:

In September of my senior year, I had the amazing opportunity to share my ideas to my town’s city council. I had noticed a lot of kids having a hard time crossing a busy road by our downtown area on their way to the community center. Instead of stewing and worrying about a worse-case-scenario, my family encouraged me to write to the mayor. I was so nervous to share my ideas live at the monthly council meeting, but as I presented my noticings and findings, I saw the council members nodding and agreeing with me! By the end of the meeting, the council approved a committee to investigate costs of installing a flashing pedestrian crosswalk sign. Now, in January, I drove by that flashing sign on my way home this afternoon! It feels so amazing to see a visual representation of my hard work paying off.

Which of the above examples was “showing,” and which was “telling”? 

Again, both of these are good. They both convey the same facts of the same story. But, it is Example 1 that SHOWS. In Example 2, the writer tells us he “was so nervous” to share his ideas. In Example 1, he instead shows us: his “heart pounded in his chest.” See the difference?

Later on, the writer in Example 2 tells us “it feels so amazing” to see the new crosswalk sign. Example 1 was much stronger, because instead of telling us, he showed us: “I couldn’t stop the smile on my face even if I tried.” Example 1 gives us a glimpse into the writer’s emotions in the moment.

The more you read and write, the better you will be at noticing great “showing” and writing it yourself. Practice makes perfect!

Books to Read to Learn More About  “Show, Don’t Tell”

As mentioned, reading is a great way to improve your writing skills! Here are some suggestions.

Fiction authors with excellent descriptive writing:

Non-fiction books with helpful writing tips:

  • Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy
  • Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work by Marie Arana

The best thing to do is to read widely and often! Find books that engage and interest you, and read those. There are so many amazing authors and excellent books; you’re bound to find ones you love and pick up some helpful skills and tips as you go!

Conclusion: “Show, Don’t Tell”

Your essays are a huge part of your college applications: they give the schools you are applying to a glimpse into who you are, your personality, and the pieces of your life that don’t fit on a resume. As such, it’s definitely important that you make the most of your college essays. Showing, not telling, is a great skill to help you write engaging and exciting essays.

With practice, time, and the tips in this article, you’ll be writing like a pro in no time!

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