Show, Don’t Tell?

“Show, don’t tell” is probably the one piece of advice known to all writers. But is it good advice? Here’s what I believe: you need to do both. You have to know when to show and when to tell.

Example: Her toothbrush was pink and purple, with little red sparkles all over it. Two of the little brushes sticking out of the top were red; the rest were white. The toothbrush had a pink grip on its handle that let her hold it better. She picked up the toothbrush and began to brush her teeth.

Whoa! Do we care about what the toothbrush looks like? Do we even care that she brushed her teeth? Probably not. And if for some reason it is necessary to say that she brushed her teeth, 1) make sure it’s relevant to the story, and 2) don’t use more than a sentence.

Show only when it makes sense to show. Maybe your character is sitting on the edge of a cliff, staring at the vast world below them. Then you should show. But skip the boring things. Trust me: we don’t care what the toothbrush looks like.

But maybe that’s a bad example. How many people actually describe their toothbrushes anyway? Here’s another:

Example: She tugged at a strand of curly brown hair and thought for a moment before reaching into her pocket and pulling out the pink cell phone. It played an awful ringtone as she chewed on her Spearmint gum and stared at the caller ID. Finally she accepted the call and held the phone to her ear.

Give your readers some credit. We all know what it’s like to pick up a phone! The parts where you should go into detail the most and really “capture the moment” are the most important parts in the story. Or the parts where your readers will want to know every little detail. Say you’re writing something really suspenseful. Your readers will be hanging on to every word with bated breath. That’s when you delve into detail and stretch it out (but not too much!) because your readers are thinking, Come on, come on… then what?

Think about the cell phone scene again. It was boring before, right? But what if the girl had been waiting for this call all her life? What if the whole story revolved around her picking up the phone at this very moment? All of a sudden, your reader is sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting for her to pick up the phone. It could change her life. Then by all means, go ahead and show! Go ahead and drag it out. Because we care.

A writer who only tells is a poor writer, but a writer who only shows is equally poor. The skillful writer knows exactly when to tell and exactly when to show in order to keep their audience captivated.

Adverbs vs. Verbs

While working to improve my own writing, I’ve come across some tips that have proved quite useful. I’ll do my best to share with you what has worked for me. You can find my main suggestions on the “Writing Tips” page, but I’ll also make an effort to include additional tips through blog posts. Here’s my first blog post tip: Avoid adverbs. When you write, instead of sticking in a weak verb plus an adverb, use one strong verb.

Example: She walked quickly.

Better choice: She strode.

Adverbs clutter up the text. Strong verbs are clean, save space, and make the writing sound more fluent. Use them! Here are a few strong verbs:

  • to splutter
  • to stumble
  • to shriek
  • to groan
  • to scamper
  • to dash
  • to nibble
  • to rasp
  • to gnaw

Of course, there are many more! But the main idea is this: strong verbs are better than weak verbs plus adverbs. However, don’t forget – for a verb to be strong, it doesn’t have to be long (that rhyme was unintentional but it did make me smile). My point is, you don’t need to try impressing anyone with big words. “He puked” is probably better than “he regurgitated.” The most important thing is to write naturally and with your own style!

Point of View

I suppose this is a sort of follow-up to yesterday’s post about the robin in the birdbath. There’s a poem by Shel Silverstein that I kept thinking about while I was writing that post, and last night I went up to my room and looked through Where the Sidewalk Ends until I found it. Here it is:

Point of View

Thanksgiving dinner’s sad and thankless

Christmas dinner’s dark and blue

When you stop and try to see it

From the turkey’s point of view.


Sunday dinner isn’t sunny

Easter feasts are just bad luck

When you see it from the viewpoint

Of a chicken or a duck.


Oh how I once loved tuna salad

Pork and lobsters, lamb chops too

Till I stopped and looked at dinner

From the dinner’s point of view.

~Shel Silverstein~

I love Shel Silverstein’s poetry. He’s got such a unique way of looking at things! His poetry manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. Here’s one more Shel Silverstein poem for you:

Early Bird

Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird

And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.

If you’re a bird, be an early early bird-

But if you’re a worm, sleep late.

~Shel Silverstein~

We always hear the phrase, “The early bird catches the worm,” but what about the worm? I guess you could say, “The early worm gets eaten.” It’s interesting to see things from the worm’s point of view.

I was sitting on the bench in the garden today (once again observing birds), and I saw a cute little robin walking around with two worms in its mouth. It was trying to pull out a third one, but it just couldn’t hold them all in its beak! So when it finally managed to pull the worm out (it was an enormous worm, by the way – almost as long as the robin itself!), it would walk a few steps, drop all its worms, hunt around for them, pick them up, walk a few more steps, drop all its worms…

Robins are such funny little birds. Of course, I could pick on sparrows too, or cardinals. In fact, most birds I can think of look silly at one point or another.

But then again, most people I know look silly at one point or another (myself included)!

Streptococci and Robins

I stayed home from school today not because I was feeling sick (in fact I feel fine), but because I’m contagious and don’t want to give strep throat to anyone else. I think this is the best kind of “being sick” – feeling wonderful and missing school anyway!

I must admit I’ve been quite lazy today. I’ve mainly been sitting on the couch in our family room, and every single time I look out the window the same robin is taking a bath in our birdbath. It just sits there, splashing water all over its body. It looks so funny – and so cute! I’m looking at it right now, and it’s making such a mess, splashing water everywhere. Once it’s done, it flies up to a tree and shakes itself dry. It looks like a puffball. And then, after it’s dry, it flies back down and starts bathing again!

I wonder what it would be like to be a robin. It would be interesting, wouldn’t it? It could make a good story – writing from a robin’s point of view. I’m inclined to try it. It’s always interesting to look at something from a different perspective. Sometimes I feel that if everyone in the world could learn to do that, then a lot of problems might be solved. Many arguments could easily be avoided, and people might not be in a hurry to pass judgments.

Next time you see a robin, try to imagine what it’s thinking!

Robert Frosting

I won’t disclose his name, but a certain person with whom I was conversing yesterday accidentally said “Robert Frosting” instead of “Robert Frost.” Of course I found the thought of “Robert Frosting” absolutely hilarious, and in honor of this moment, I decided to post one of his poems on my blog. Aside from “The Road Not Taken” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” this is one of my favorite Robert Frost poems. I find it to be quite powerful.

Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,

So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,

Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,

But stretched away unto the edge of doom.


I should not be withheld but that someday

Into their vastness I should steal away,

Fearless of ever finding open land,

Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.


I do not see why I should e’er turn back,

Or those should not set forth upon my track

To overtake me, who should miss me here

And long to know if still I held them dear.


They would not find me changed from him they knew-

Only more sure of all I thought was true.

~Robert Frost~

Well? I know, I know. You’ve got to love Robert Frosting.