Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

We all know that reading and writing are intrinsically connected: Readers need writers and writers need readers, and each supports the other. When asked to give aspiring writers advice, for instance, many writers point to the importance of reading—or as Gary Paulson so wonderfully puts it, if you want to write, “read like a wolf eats!“And as I quoted in an earlier post, Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott believes that “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

For those of us who implement some variety of writing workshop, this connection usually leads us to teach students to ‘read like a writer,’ in order to be more aware of the craft moves writers make. And we use mentor texts to explicitly teach craft, with lessons focused on demonstrating such things as how writers ‘hook’ their readers through engaging leads, how they use dialogue to bring a scene alive, and perhaps most frequently how they ‘show, don’t tell.’

Like ‘Write what you know,’ ‘show, don’t tell’ is a kind of writing mantra that teachers tend to teach students again and again. And like ‘write what you know,’ there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many writers, for instance, balk at the idea of writing what you already know—or as children’s book author Richard Peck says, “We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.” But what about the merits of ‘show, don’t tell’? On the one hand, it reflects a general call for students to be writing scenes, instead of summaries, in which events and moments dramatically unfold, and as such it’s good advice. It’s also a call to write with more descriptive and sensory details—or as Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And to help students add more sensory description, we often ask them to brainstorm lists of details for each of the five senses—which sometimes leads them to binge on adjectives.

Both of these aspects of ‘show, don’t tell’ are directly related to the powerful way narratives work on us as readers. Vividly rendered dramatic scenes allow us to viscerally and emotionally feel what the writer is writing about in ways that can deeply affect us. In fact, neuroscientists have been able to document these affects through brain scans, as The New York TImes article “Your Brain on Fiction,” recently explored. Some scientists even report that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective,” which is one of the characteristics of Common Core Standards college and career ready students.

Inviting students to harness this power through showing, not telling, is wonderful. But I think there’s something else writers do with scenes and details to affect us so deeply that isn’t always captured in the call to ‘show, don’t tell’—though I think it’s hiding right there in Chekhov’s sentence. As a writer whose stories and plays explore dashed dreams and diminished expectations, it seems telling that Chekhov chose to explain what he meant through an image involving broken glass rather than, say, a crystal goblet. That is, he may have purposely chosen that detail not to be descriptive for description’s sake, as many student writers seem to do, but to echo the themes he tends to explore in his plays and stories.

In this way, we could say that writers actually show AND tell. They give us details we can see, hear, smell, taste or feel in order to bring their scenes alive so we can experience them, too. But those details often tell us something as well—about a character’s situation or feelings, their relationships to people and places, and sometimes even about themes. Of course, to figure out what those details are telling, we, as readers, have to infer. But we infer because at some level we know that those details are more than descriptive window dressing. They actually mean something, and the inferences and hunches we make are answers to the question we invisibly ask: “What is the author trying to tell me through this choice of detail?”

To see this in a text we might use in a classroom, let’s look at the first page of Cynthia Rylant‘s story “Spaghetti” from the wonderful collection Every Living Thing, which two third grade ICT teachers I worked with used as a mentor text last year to push into show and tell.

Having read and enjoyed the story earlier, the students were able to return to the opening and see what we, as experienced readers, probably can on a first read: that Rylant has described the setting in a way that seems to accentuate and mirror the loneliness that Gabriel feels, with the things he remembers in the next paragraph ‘telling’ us something as well—that Gabriel is smart and probably poor and longs to have a different sort of life than he’s currently leading, one that’s filled with companionship and light. And seeing how Rylant deliberately used description and detail not just to appeal to our senses but to evoke and reveal both the character’s feelings and his situation, they went back to the narratives they were working on and tried to do the same. One of the third graders, for instance, was working on a story about the time he had to kill a spider in the bathtub because his mother was sick. Rather than focusing on describing the bathroom—the color of the walls and tiles, the smell of shampoo in the air—he focused on the spider instead and tried to describe it in a way that conveyed all the fear he felt.

Adding show and tell to our repertoire of craft lessons helps students engage in what Annie Dillard describes as one of the critical aspects of writing. “The writer of any work,” she says in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, “must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” And deciding what to put in, she continues, requires the writer to ask “What is this about?” at the deepest level: what do I want my reader to understand about people and life through this story?

Asking students to experiment with show and tell, instead of ‘show, don’t tell’, requires that they also wrestle with what’s at the heart of their stories, which results in more meaningful writing. And it helps them be more critical readers. For if they know that writers show and tell by choosing their details deliberately to underscore their deeper meaning, they’re more apt, as readers, to wonder and consider what an author is trying to convey through those details by asking themselves the very same question the writer asked herself: “What is this about?” And that’s where the reading-writing connection becomes even more powerful.

10 thoughts on “Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

    • Thanks, Terje. Knowing that I kept you thinking is perhaps the best compliment you could offer—that, and knowing that I have readers in Estonia! Hope your students enjoy it, too.

    • Thanks, Pat. The idea of show AND tell came to me when I was writing the book in one of those magical writing moments when something I’d been trying to say suddenly became crystal clear. It also seems like another one of those things we subconsciously know by heart but don’t fully share with our students. Hopefully this will help—in language that makes sense to them.

  1. Your post addressed so much of what I’ve been struggling with as a coach as I keep seeing students writing elaborate, completely irrelevant, details after lessons that have emphasized showing not telling. I will share this post and help spread the message that the details really need to drive the plot and there’s such an important difference. Thank you for writing this so effectively!

    • Thanks, Melanie! My thinking around this also began by noticing what students did with the lessons the teachers I was working with gave. The details in their writing almost always were relevant but the thinking around that remained invisible, and so the students would go back to their desk and binge on adjectives and adverbs. But one teacher who bemoaned what she was getting decided to go back to Fireflies, which her students were using as a mentor text, and have the students think what the author might be telling them through what she was showing—and it was shocking to see what a difference it made both in their writing and reading. So . . . good luck with this. And, BTW, love your blog!

  2. I stumbled onto your blog from another blogger’s blogroll. I definitely hit paydirt this morning! This kind of serendipitous discovery does nothing to discourage my shameless wandering on the web. Thanks for a post that is perfect the personal narrative unit I’m working on right now with my sixth graders. Thanks for sharing your thinking and so many other resources in this post.

    • For better or worse, I, too, am a shameless web surfer—and I love those serendipitous discoveries like the fabulous Barry Lopez quote that you have on your blog, which also reminded me of a long-term but still unmet goal to do some Slice of Life writing. So here’s to serendipity and connecting online! And good luck with your 6th graders. My experience is that many kids actually get into showing AND telling, which frequently makes more sense to them than just adding adjectives and adverbs.

  3. Pingback: On Conventions & Talk & the Power of Listening | To Make a Prairie

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