Saying it doesn’t make it so…too much talking mutes the story.
The teacher becomes the student—again.
This past week, I received a full manuscript review and critique of (what will eventually become) my first novel. The reviewer—a student of mine from thirty some-odd years ago—did a masterful job of pointing out the challenges as well as a few bright spots.
As I read and reread her critique, one of my writing offenses fell in the category of “Show Don’t Tell.” In other words, my characters and narrator did a lot of talking when they should have been taking action to move the story forward. Or a character would label something as “desolate” or “beautiful” but not fully paint the picture. Saying something is “desolate” does not have the same punch as painting a picture of desolation for the reader. Saying it does not make it so.
My manuscript reviewer said this (“show don’t tell”) rears its head with many novelists (at least, I guess, the ones who struggle to grab the attention of the readers).
I thought back to the times I worked with students and their essay writing. Often, they would “tell” me that something was “major,” “critical,” “important,” or “sensational” but would fall short on proving or “showing” how the descriptor was apt. They failed to support their assertions with detail.
In short, too much talking mutes the story—whether that story is an essay, a book, a memo, or a policy initiative.
I can see a lesson here beyond academic or novel writing. Think about how we might encounter or be guilty of using “show don’t tell” in our lives. We either think we are clear or do not know how to paint a picture for the audience. Our dialogue ends up muting the point. What we say or do not say stands in the way of making powerful connections.
Around the house. My wife and I plan on building and planting a raised-box garden in our backyard. We read about how to do it. We said that we would “put it in the backyard.” But until we actually drove some stakes into the ground, all we had were words, little action. The stakes provided a visual of where the garden will eventually stand. It “showed” us location, sunlight, actual size, and potential challenges and assets.
In the gym. Ever work with a trainer in the gym? Do you want one who will tell you about each piece of equipment but nothing else? Or would you get more from a trainer if she “showed” you how to use specific equipment to target muscle groups important to you?
Learning with video. An effective “How To” video does more than just tell you what to do. It will “show” and label steps for you. It provides a vivid description.
At work. A boss who wants a healthier workplace has to do more than provide information (written or spoken) that exalts the importance of diet, exercise, sleep, and downtime. He has to “show” it by modeling appropriate action. (Don’t tell me to disconnect when I go home—and then expect me immediately to respond to a late-night email.)
In music. Think of your favorite songwriter. Maybe a particular song paints vivid imagery for you. Chances are the bard “showed” you an emotion or action rather than just told you.
You might be able to transform your leadership skills when you “show” the power of what you want your team to do rather than just telling them.
Think of the impact of this for you and your goals. A simple goal statement (in writing or in your head) might be a great start—but is it powerful enough to drive you forward? Have you created the imagery of what the goal will look like?
Do you have “show and action” in your plan—or is it just talk?
Video recommendation for the week:
Maybe I should asked these young people for help developing my characters! Notice how they tell what to do and then “show” it. To the head of the class!
Make it an inspiring week and H.T.R.B. as needed.
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