Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Show, Don't Tell

I spent the day yesterday at Prospect Valley Elementary School in Jefferson County. With school budgets so constrained these days, it was a treat to have the opportunity to do a school visit. I've noticed that schools are wanting more substantive presentations these days, writing workshops rather than just author "glamour" presentations, so I gave two traditional assemblies in the morning, one for K-2 and one for grades 3-6, and then in the afternoon I did two writing workshops, one with fifth graders and one with sixth graders.

My workshop focused on the fundamental writing principle, "Show, Don't Tell." "Telling" is when the author simply informs the reader about the character's emotions or personality traits: "Tori was sad," "Jack was mad," "Gemma was curious," "Sean was smart and snobby." "Showing" is when the author gives the reader actual evidence, based on facial expressions, body language, actions, diologue, inner thoughts, which allows the reader to draw her own conclusions. With showing, the reader gets to be the detective, as the author provides the clues.

This can be a hard distinction for young writers to grasp. When asked to show "Tori was sad" rather than simply tell it, some kids will suggest, "Tori was depressed" or "Tori was miserable" - which is an example of more sophisticated or descriptive telling, a bigger and better vocabulary for telling, but is not yet showing. Even when they do come up with an action, e.g.,"Tori dropped down on the bench," they tend to want to add, "sadly." But they also came up with lots of great ways to reveal emotion without this kind of overt labeling: Tori blinked back tears, Tori's shoulders slumped, Tori let the ball drop and didn't bother picking it up again. I found it helpful to call some brave volunteer forward to role-play the emotion in question. Even though it can be hard to come up with words to express how our bodies give clues to our inner state, when asked to act in an angry way, students did so automatically. "Be angry!" Arms crossed, forehead creased in a scowl, feet stomping away. Our bodies know these things. The trick is letting our minds in on the secret.


  1. You can give glamour presentations in my classes any time.

  2. You're on, Eric! I'll even do my famous ape dance.