Saturday, August 20, 2016

Show AND tell: the only rule for good writing?

There is an old journalistic maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” which demands that writers show their actions to express an event or story and not just offer the results of what happened.

Please summarize with details. Instead of abstract words, try using words that you folks images in the mind's eye of your readers. In this way, you penetrate the hearts of your readers.

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." 
— Anton Chekov

I believe there is only one rule for good writing: Show, don't tell.

To "show" means to demonstrate.
To "tell" means to assert.
Watch this video to SEE the difference

For example, we may say, "He is sloppy." This is telling. Instead, if you say, "His shoelaces are untied, his socks are mismatched, his shirt untucked, and his face unwashed." This is showing.

In order to truly convince your readers, make sure to show with details exactly what you mean. Save your assertions for the topic and controlling sentences.

You can't tell us someone is a wonderful person, a talented musician or a spoiled child. We won't believe you. You must show us.


Please add details so readers can imagine and care about your story. Please watch this short video to learn HOW to add details to your essays.

Essay Tip: Show, Don’t Tell


  • “I arrived at ABC Bank and took on a great deal of responsibility in corporate lending. I managed diverse clients in my first year and earned the recognition of my manager. Because of my hard work, initiative and leadership, he placed me on the management track, and I knew that I would be a success in this challenging position.”

In the two sentences above, the reader is told that the applicant “took on a great deal of responsibility,” “managed diverse clients,” and “earned recognition,” none of which is substantiated via the story. Further, there is no evidence of “hard work, initiative and leadership.”


  • “Almost immediately after joining ABC bank, I took a risk in asking management for the accounts left by a recently transferred manager. Soon, I expanded our lending relationships with a children’s clothing retailer, a metal recycler and a food distributor, making decisions on loans of up to $1M. Although I had a commercial banking background, I sought the mentorship of our District Manager and studied aggressively for the CFA (before and after fourteen-hour days); I was encouraged when the Lending Officer cited my initiative and desire to learn, placing me on our management track….”

In the example above, the story shows the “great deal of responsibility” (client coverage/ $1M lending decisions) and “diverse clients” (a children’s clothing retailer, a metal recycler and a food distributor). Further, “hard work, initiative and leadership” are clear throughout.

The latter is a more interesting, rich and humble paragraph – one that is more likely to captivate the reader. By showing your actions in detail, the same conclusions are drawn, but facts facilitate them. Essentially, facts become your evidence!

(found at; accessed 2010/11)

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- Updated by Vince on Sat 20 Aug 2016

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