Show Don't Tell: The Writing Edition

Sep 04, 2012 admin

Show and tell. That’s the thing you did in second grade when you found a rock, assumed it had fallen from the moon and you wanted to share it with your classmates.

Then there’s show, don’t tell. Not to be confused with Truth or Dare.

Show-don’t-tell is what good journalism schools and what creative writing professors and literary editors preach all day, reminding authors that if you want to grab the reader by the collar, stating the facts isn’t enough. Yes, characters, plot and premise are essential. And yes, your writing needs to be crisp. But then what?

Here are four tips to get you going:

  1. Set the scene. At night, when I tell stories to my kids, I usually start with “Once upon a time.” That may seem trite, and it is, but much like the lights going down in a theatre, it’s a cue for my sons to settle down and listen. It also forces me to immediately introduce a person, a place and a problem. Where is this happening? How is the protagonist feeling? What’s about to go wrong? In business writing, this can be achieved with a simple, compelling case study, especially at the very beginning of a story.
  2. Use words that convey some of the five senses. I’m not saying turn your prose purple, but don’t be afraid to express how those real-life characters in the case study feel (elation over winning a new account), or what they saw (angry faces of lost customers, perhaps).
  3. Apply metaphors and similes. When Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage,” he didn’t mean it literally, even if his world was indeed a stage. But the metaphor was a handy way to assert the concept of the men and women who were “merely players.” In those two lines, he expressed his point of view on life. Could you sum up a company’s year-long transition using a two-sentence metaphor? Try it. You might make the reader happier.
  4. Use dialogue. “What?” you say. This may seem odd for business writing, but if used sparingly, it can inject humor, voice and pacing to a piece.

As Verlyn Klinkenborg of The New York Times recently wrote, there’s no magic to the process of writing, only practice. “Think patiently,” he says. And try out sentences in your head. Klinkenborg’s is sage advice, lest we ended up writing 47 endings, as Hemingway did for “A Farewell to Arms.”


Topics: Content, Messaging, Writing, Journalism

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