The Show and the Tell


All writers balance the Show and the Tell. All writers have been told to “show, don’t tell” more than once.

This morning, I’m reminded of this moldy aphorism because I’m judging for the Royal Palm Literary Awards, and I just wrote it. As beginning writers, all of us lean toward using both a Show (to describe the situation) and a Tell (to nail it down). I think there’s something of human nature in this: the need for control. As a novice writer, I work the words to show the look of astonishment on a character’s face changing to anger when she learns an uncomfortable truth. Not easy to describe, so just in case the reader doesn’t get the picture, I tell them that she’s astonished, then angry.




It takes a bit of writing and getting critique to understand the truth of writing: The picture in the reader’s mind is unique to the reader, a mix of the writer’s words and the reader’s experience. The writer needs to balance the Show and the Tell skillfully to create a vibrant picture in the reader’s mind … accurate, but not exact.

The normal critique group comment is “cut the Tell.” That’s almost always said in the context of dialog. Tell has its place, because Tell is compact, a good way of giving information quickly.

I think the reason we often lean toward the belt and suspenders Show/Tell is that need for the reader to see it our way. (The mental equivalent of the plaintive, “What I meant to say was …”).

I must be maturing; I’m learning from advance readers of Skins and Bone that I sometimes do too little Tell. (advertisement: You, too, can be and advance reader. Punch HERE.)

Grammar Resplendent

Marvelous opinion piece by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post on Christmas day.

The whole article is a great read—it’s Rampell’s lessons in the language and writing from her sixth-grade teacher. Its first three points were a gift of confirmation, the fourth a gift a recognition of reality, and the fifth a source of pain which will be subject of the my next post. Here are the first three:

  1. Learn all the rules of language, even the stodgy-seeming ones. You will find freedom in structure.

In particular, of her teacher, she says “He taught us the masonry of language. Now we could build whatever we liked.” One of the finest defenses of grammar I have read.

  1. If you must break a grammatical rule, do so on purpose, not out of sloppiness. Do so only if it serves your audience. 

“The best excuse for a grammatical error … is clarity.” Perfect.

  1. If a reader doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, that is your fault — not the reader’s. 

I need to have a sticky on my computer reminding me of this every day.

Then I hit the fourth rule:

  1. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. No piece of writing is ever done; it merely meets a deadline. 

I suspect that #4 is true for Rampell because her deadlines are weekly or biweekly; she probably never gets above rewrite five or six. For me as a novelist, cycles of rewrite begin to wear down the prose, and the hard question is when to stop.

And on to the agony of her point #5 … next time