Someone else wrote this:
“Either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
Every writer has moments when creativity fails them. We sit before our computer and the words refuse to come, or when they do, they seem awkward. At times like this, we feel alone and isolated. After all, an idea is jammed in our head and words should fall from our fingers like water from the tap.
I have suffered this, the same as every author does. However, it never gets too firm a grip on me because I have several exercises that help me write my way through the block. Something we sometimes forget is that the act of writing every day builds mental muscle tone and keeps you fit and in thehabit ofwriting.
Every author suffers a dry spell now and then. Even so, this job requires us to practice, just like music or dancing. Doing well at anything artistic or sports related requires discipline. Just like…
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I am sharing this from another WordPress blogger:
Reading the Word Matthew 16:1–4 (ESV) 1 And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be […]
I don’t know the woman who wrote this, but I am glad to have read it.
I HATE this advice. I know myself well enough to know that probably means I need to pay attention when people say it about my writing. If you ask me about it, I’ll probably say something like “I’m skeptical; it’s a newfangled notion and I’ve read plenty of books that have stood the test of time while telling mercilessly.”
Honestly, though? I hate this advice because I don’t understand it well enough to heed it.
This blog post is my attempt to come to grips with this confusing notion.
It’s in the prose
Show, don’t tell, isn’t an aspect of the storytelling side of writing. You can have a terrific plot, compelling characters, and a meaningful theme, and still struggle with telling. Show, don’t tell happens in the prose you use to tell the story.
Do you see what I did there? Storytelling. Prose that tells the story. This is probably a big reason I find this concept so vague: it’s a catchy phrase that doesn’t convey enough meaning to be helpful.
Dramatization versus exposition
The fabulously informative K.M. Weiland explains the phrase as code for mastering great narrative and allowing readers to fully inhabit the story. In the old novels I sink into when I have a bad day, I’m observing a character who’s watching something happen; the “show versus tell” goal is for me to watch something happen myself.
Weiland recommends examining every paragraph of your novel for the proper balance of showing, using a list of checkpoints.
- “Telling” verbs
These are verbs that put a layer of distance between the reader and the story. Weiland’s list includes ask, begin, feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, think, touch, and wonder. These words distance the reader because instead of engaging the reader’s own senses, you’re telling them what the narrator is sensing. It’s the difference between “Sally heard a lark singing” and something that describes the plaintive, desperate cry of a lark looking for a mate.
My impression of lark song from a hundred literary references was completely off base. There are no larks where I live, so I looked it up on YouTube to help me write that sentence. From reading all those old “telling” narratives, I imagined a beautiful melody, like the mockingbird outside my house sings. Now I know it’s more of a call, not very musical at all. If the way a lark sounds was important to a plot, I’d never have gotten the point.
2. Dramatize, don’t summarize
You can think of showing as dramatizing, and telling as summarizing. It’s the knife plunging into the victim’s heart versus the assassin killing the victim. Joe Bunting calls this being specific, and he says it’s the secret to showing, not telling. He recommends interrogating your story to reveal the hidden depths, and compares a summary to a closed accordion. The music happens when you pull it open and show the folds.
Don’t try to eliminate all the telling in your novel. You can use it to summarize tedious or extraneous events, remind readers of what they already know, and transition between scenes, times, and settings. Most of your writing should be showing, but there’s a place for telling. As a reader, I’m fine with a summary that says the second week in the new job was just like the first. Writer’s Digest says be brief, and make sure whatever you’re summarizing is really necessary for advancing the plot by developing backstory, establishing mood, or describing the setting. The flip side of adding specificity is that you’re adding length. Don’t bore the reader.
4. Show the one right detail
Find the one thing that will bring the scene to life, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Brandon Sanderson talks about this in his BYU lesson on world building: he says if you go deep on one little thing about your fantasy or science fiction world, it creates the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Weiland says that trying to dramatize everything, so the reader sees exactly what you see in your imagination, doesn’t usually work, and adds unnecessary clutter. Along the same lines, Tom Leveen reminds us that everyone knows what bacon smells like, so you don’t need to waste a paragraph describing it. He says make that one right detail concrete: it’s not the length of the description but the specificity. You can choose to leave other things ambiguous.
The camera trick
The Writer’s Digest recommends Jeff Gerke’s idea from his book The First 50 Pages, to help you identify whether your prose is telling, not showing. Ask yourself, can the camera see it? “It was a peaceful land and the people lived in harmony” is telling because the camera can’t see peace and harmony.
You’ll have to imagine a camera that picks up things from the other senses. Also, interior monologue isn’t telling, even though the camera wouldn’t see it.
Showing better by stirring emotions
Another way to think about it is to say that showing is the ability to stir readers’ emotions, says Abigail Perry on the DIY MFA website. Using the courtroom verdict scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see how three techniques heighten the reader’s connection to the character’s emotions:
- Metaphor and simile
Using vivid images and precise words pulls the reader in better than vague adverbs and adjectives. In Mockingbird, Scout says “I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers.” She could have said “the jury returned, moving slowly” but that wouldn’t have conveyed the agonizing pace. The metaphor also helps to show how Scout is perceiving the moment, in a dreamlike, time-stretched, somber way.
Metaphors and similes make scenes easier to imagine. Watch out for clichés, though – I know the first simile that comes to my mind is usually something that was overused a hundred years ago.
2. Verbs to trigger the senses
Scout notices that Jem’s hands are “white from gripping the rails.” From this image, we know Jem is upset, and we can feel the tension in his body. Atticus “pushes” his papers and “snaps” his briefcase. Using verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs is a stronger, more direct way to describe what and how the character sees, smells, hears, and feels. Tom Leveen says we can use more than 5 senses in our writing. The senses of temperature, pain, balance and acceleration, and where our limbs are in relation to ourselves can all help deepen the reader’s connection to our work.
3. Interweaving dialogue
Dialogue is another way to show a character’s feelings and emotions. There’s not much dialogue in the Mockingbird scene but what little there is pulls us in deeper. Not exactly dialogue, but description of dialogue – “Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny” – conveys that same slow-motion unreality as the “underwater swimmers” jury motion. At the end of the scene, as Scout is watching from the balcony as Atticus exits the courtroom, Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…” The short statement conveys the respect the community has for Atticus, and supports the visuals.
How to show in four easy steps
The Daily Writing Tips blog summarizes the concept briefly:
- Use dialogue
- Use sensory language
- Be descriptive (but don’t go so far as to write a “police blotter” description)
- Be specific, not vague
The great lie of writing workshops?
Joshua Henkin has a different perspective on the “show don’t tell” advice. He says there is a kernel of truth in it – fiction is a dramatic art. However, a novel is not a movie. Movies are better at certain things, but they aren’t as good at others as novels are, like conveying what’s going on in the general sense that doesn’t fit into a specific scene, or more importantly, describing internal psychological states. A movie can suggest emotion by dialogue and gesture, or borrow from the novel with a voice-over; a novel can straight-out tell you what the person is feeling.
Henkin says “show don’t tell” can be a lazy way to say something isn’t working in a story, when the teacher and the student need to dig deeper to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s easier to fiddle with the description so the reader can see the torn vinyl couch than it is to describe internal emotional states without using cheesy clichés. “Show don’t tell” can provide cover for writers who don’t want to do the hardest but most crucial work.
Mostly show but sometimes tell
Hannah Collins neatly straddles both sides of the question with this less catchy but more accurate phrase. She compares writing to music, where composers include silence to give the listener a rest from all the sounds. If you do nothing but show, your writing will be long and exhausting, and some things are better conveyed by simple telling.
Because telling comes naturally to writers, we need to learn to show, which is why the “show don’t tell” advice is so prevalent. Collins recommends practicing by writing a scene in simple “telling” style and then rewriting it to show, sprinkling in more details and context than the straightforward telling conveyed.
Ultimately, knowing when to show and when to tell comes from experience, practice, instinct, and feedback.
Well said, sister.
I have prayed about this post for a while before putting it out into the world.
Since the ruling in New York, I’ve seen a lot of posts about abortion on my social feeds. I’m not going to debate the morality of abortion, because at the end of the day I am pro-life, but I do want to point out that when the crowd was ready to stone the woman, Jesus didn’t join them just because they were on the right side of the issue. Instead, He stood against the crowd and invited them to self-reflect.
It’s easy to assume we know what kind of choice we would make, but the truth is that a lot of us have never had to actually choose. I’ve heard a lot of male Christian leaders voicing their opinions, and while I respect their platforms, what I don’t hear a lot of is: “Thank…
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I am sharing this from a fellow WordPress blogger. I am glad to see someone else who understands it’s not about a list of sins separating us from God, but sin itself IS separation from God, and only acceptance of what His Son did for us by giving His life will connect us to Him the way He intended.
A quote from the blog entry:
“It isn’t so much a list of violations that Paul is talking about here; it is the very condition of being in rebellion against God that he is talking about. ”
The following is from a plaque dedicated to the grandfather of my friend Martha. I never met her grandfather, Sid Rutherford, of Orono, Ontario, Canada, but reading about him, he sounds like someone I’d love to have known. Maybe others can relate.
Sidney Basil Rutherford
Born November 5, 1916 and possessed of an insatiable curiosity, Sid Rutherford was a passionate educator. His teaching career spanned 34 years, beginning in a one-room schoolhouse in Crooked Creek and finishing as Vice Principal of Clarke High School. A strong advocate that most education occurred outside of the classroom, he encouraged everyone to pursue lifelong learning as they followed their dreams, once writing that “the best education in the world is when two people sit on the log facing one another and converse alone.”
In pursuit of his own curious mind, Sid could often be found outdoors in the fields and on forest trails in this area hiking, cross country skiing, observing. He felt a strong civic duty and served on many boards, committees, and advocacy groups to protect Orono as a village within its unique landscape for future generations. It was important to him to stand up, be a voice, and make a difference.
After his death on Feb 15, 1992, the community, along with his family, created this Woods Walk to honour his memory. Emblematic of his love of nature, this trail embodies his wish that curious minds will explore the wondrous trails in and around his beloved Orono.
Commenting on the village slogan, “Orono, The Place With a Difference”, Sidney B. Rutherford wrote, “The citizens of Orono over the years have been feisty; sometimes almost contrary; but through it all, Orono has maintained its character and that makes the difference.”
I enjoyed the following article and wanted to share it. I posted the link, but in case someday it gets removed (which I hope doesn’t happen, but too often things disappear on the internet), I am copying its content below. If you can access the link, you might also be interested in the comments that follow it.
By Peter Gray, PhD
Forced education interferes with children’s abilities to educate themselves.
Posted Sep 09, 2009
In my last post I took a step that, I must admit, made me feel uncomfortable. I said, several times: “School is prison.” I felt uncomfortable saying that because school is so much a part of my life and the lives of almost everyone I know. I, like most people I know, went through the full 12 years of public schooling. My mother taught in a public school for several years. My beloved half-sister is a public schoolteacher. I have many dear friends and cousins who are public schoolteachers. How can I say that these good people–who love children and have poured themselves passionately into the task of trying to help children–are involved in a system of imprisoning children? The comments on my last post showed that my references to school as prison made some other people feel uncomfortable also.
Sometimes I find, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me and others feel, I have to speak the truth. We can use all the euphemisms we want, but the literal truth is that schools, as they generally exist in the United States and other modern countries, are prisons. Human beings within a certain age range (most commonly 6 to 16) are required by law to spend a good portion of their time there, and while there they are told what they must do, and the orders are generally enforced. They have no or very little voice in forming the rules they must follow. A prison–according to the common, general definition–is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty.
Now you might argue that schools as we know them are good, or necessary; but you can’t argue that they are not prisons. To argue the latter would be to argue that we do not, in fact, have a system of compulsory education. Either that, or it would be a semantic argument in which you would claim that prison actually means something different from its common, general definition. I think it is important, in any serious discussion, to use words honestly.
Sometimes people use the word prison in a metaphorical sense to refer to any situation in which they must follow rules or do things that are unpleasant. In that spirit, some adults might refer to their workplace as a prison, or even to their marriage as a prison. But that is not a literal use of the term, because those examples involve voluntary, not involuntary restraint. It is against the law in this and other democratic countries to force someone to work at a job where the person doesn’t want to work, or to marry someone that he or she doesn’t want to marry. It is not against the law, however, to force a child to go to school; in fact, it is against the law to not force a child to go to school if you are the parent and the child doesn’t want to go. (Yes, I know, some parents have the wherewithal to find alternative schooling or provide home schooling that is acceptable to both the child and the state, but that is not the norm in today’s society; and the laws in many states and countries work strongly against such alternatives.) So, while jobs and marriages might in some sad cases feel like prisons, schools generally are prisons.
Now here’s another term that I think deserves to be said out loud: Forced education. Like the term prison, this term sounds harsh. But, again, if we have compulsory education, then we have forced education. The term compulsory, if it has any meaning at all, means that the person has no choice about it.
The question worth debating is this: Is forced education–and the consequential imprisonment of children–a good thing or a bad thing? Most people seem to believe that it is, all in all, a good thing; but I think that it is, all in all, a bad thing. I outline here some of the reasons why I think this, in a list of what I refer to as “seven sins” of our system of forced education:
1. Denial of liberty on the basis of age.
In my system of values, and in that long endorsed by democratic thinkers, it is wrong to deny anyone liberty without just cause. To incarcerate an adult we must prove, in a court of law, that the person has committed a crime or is a serious threat to herself or others. Yet we incarcerate children and teenagers in school just because of their age. This is the most blatant of the sins of forced education.
2. Fostering of shame, on the one hand, and hubris, on the other.
It is not easy to force people to do what they do not want to do. We no longer use the cane, as schoolmasters once did, but instead rely on a system of incessant testing, grading, and ranking of children compared with their peers. We thereby tap into and distort the human emotional systems of shame and pride to motivate children to do the work. Children are made to feel ashamed if they perform worse than their peers and pride if they perform better. Shame leads some to drop out, psychologically, from the educational endeavor and to become class clowns (not too bad), or bullies (bad), or drug abusers and dealers (very bad). Those made to feel excessive pride from the shallow accomplishments that earn them A’s and honors may become arrogant, disdainful of the common lot who don’t do so well on tests; disdainful, therefore, of democratic values and processes (and this may be the worst effect of all).
3. Interference with the development of cooperation and nurturance.
We are an intensely social species, designed for cooperation. Children naturally want to help their friends, and even in school they find ways to do so. But our competition-based system of ranking and grading students works against the cooperative drive. Too much help given by one student to another is cheating. Helping others may even hurt the helper, by raising the grading curve and lowering the helper’s position on it. Some of those students who most strongly buy into school understand this well; they become ruthless achievers. Moreover, as I have argued in previous posts (see especially Sept. 24, 2008), the forced age segregation that occurs in school itself promotes competition and bullying and inhibits the development of nurturance. Throughout human history, children and adolescents have learned to be caring and helpful through their interactions with younger children. The age-graded school system deprives them of such opportunities.
4. Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction.
A theme of the entire series of essays in this blog is that children are biologically predisposed to take responsibility for their own education (for an introduction, see July 16, 2008, post). They play and explore in ways that allow them to learn about the social and physical world around them. They think about their own future and take steps to prepare themselves for it. By confining children to school and to other adult-directed settings, and by filling their time with assignments, we deprive them of the opportunities and time they need to assume such responsibility. Moreover, the implicit and sometimes explicit message of our forced schooling system is: “If you do what you are told to do in school, everything will work out well for you.” Children who buy into that may stop taking responsibility for their own education. They may assume falsely that someone else has figured out what they need to know to become successful adults, so they don’t have to think about it. If their life doesn’t work out so well, they take the attitude of a victim: “My school (or parents or society) failed me, and that’s why my life is all screwed up.”
5. Linking of learning with fear, loathing, and drudgery.
For many students, school generates intense anxiety associated with learning. Students who are just learning to read and are a little slower than the rest feel anxious about reading in front of others. Tests generate anxiety in almost everyone who takes them seriously. Threats of failure and the shame associated with failure generate enormous anxiety in some. I have found in my college teaching of statistics that a high percentage of students, even at my rather elite university, suffer from math anxiety, apparently because of the humiliation they have experienced pertaining to math in school. A fundamental psychological principle is that anxiety inhibits learning. Learning occurs best in a playful state, and anxiety inhibits playfulness. The forced nature of schooling turns learning into work. Teachers even call it work: “You must do your work before you can play.” So learning, which children biologically crave, becomes toil–something to be avoided whenever possible.
6. Inhibition of critical thinking.
Presumably, one of the great general goals of education is the promotion of critical thinking. But despite all the lip service that educators devote to that goal, most students–including most “honors students”–learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork. They learn that their job in school is to get high marks on tests and that critical thinking only wastes time and interferes. To get a good grade, you need to figure out what the teacher wants you to say and then say it. I’ve heard that sentiment expressed countless times by college students as well as by high-school students, in discussions held outside the classroom. I’ve devoted a lot of effort toward promoting critical thinking at the college level; I’ve developed a system of teaching designed to promote it, written articles about it, and given many talks about it at conferences on teaching. I’ll devote a future post or two in this blog to the topic. But, truth be told, the grading system, which is the chief motivator in our system of education, is a powerful force against honest debate and critical thinking in the classroom. In a system in which we teachers do the grading, few students are going to criticize or even question the ideas we offer; and if we try to induce criticism by grading for it, we generate false criticism.
7. Reduction in diversity of skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking.
By forcing all schoolchildren through the same standard curriculum, we reduce their opportunities to follow alternative pathways. The school curriculum represents a tiny subset of the skills and knowledge that are important to our society. In this day and age, nobody can learn more than a sliver of all there is to know. Why force everyone to learn the same sliver? When children are free–as I have observed at the Sudbury Valley School and others have observed with unschoolers–they take new, diverse, and unpredicted paths. They develop passionate interests, work diligently to become experts in the realms that fascinate them, and then find ways of making a living by pursuing their interests. Students forced through the standard curriculum have much less time to pursue their own interests, and many learn well the lesson that their own interests don’t really count; what counts is what’s measured on the schools’ tests. Some get over that, but too many do not.
This list of “sins” is not novel. Many teachers I have spoken with are quite aware of all of these detrimental effects of forced education, and many work hard to try to counteract them. Some try to instill as much of a sense of freedom and play as the system permits; many do what they can to mute the shame of failure and reduce anxiety; most try to allow and promote cooperation and compassion among the students, despite the barriers against it; many do what they can to allow and promote critical thinking. But the system works against them. It may even be fair to say that teachers in our school system are no more free to teach as they wish than are students free to learn as they wish. (But teachers, unlike students, are free to quit; so they are not in prison.)
I must also add that human beings, especially young human beings, are remarkably adaptive and resourceful. Many students find ways to overcome the negative feelings that forced schooling engenders and to focus on the positive. They fight the sins. They find ways to cooperate, to play, to help one another overcome feelings of shame, to put undue pride in its place, to combat bullies, to think critically, and to spend some time on their true interests despite the forces working against them in school. But to do all this while also satisfying the demands of the forced education takes great effort, and many do not succeed. At minimum, the time students must spend on wasteful busywork and just following orders in school detracts greatly from the time they can use to educate themselves.
I have listed here “seven sins” of forced education, but I have resisted the temptation to call them the seven sins. There may be more than seven. I invite you to add more, in the comments section below.
Finally, I add that I do not believe that we should just do away with schools and replace them with nothing. Children educate themselves, but we adults have a responsibility to provide settings that allow them to do that in an optimal manner. That is the topic of my next post.
*Some hyperlinks in these posts are automatically generated and may or may not link you to sites that are relevant. Author-generated links are distinguished from automatic ones by underlines.