I don’t often find myself at a loss for words, but my mind was racing too fast to pick anything to come out. I looked out the cafe window at the people bundled in their coats, Spring still weeks away. In front of an agent I had recently started working with on the early draft of a few chapters the book I’d hurried to finish in the last few days said the words “show, don’t tell,” which she had just explained to me was rule number one of writing. And that my writing was all tell and hardly any show.
I had hoped I would have gotten at least to rule number two. She eased the pain by explaining it became rule number one not because you should learn it first but because so many people need to learn it.
My thoughts revolved around how to make sense of the instruction. As she answered my questions about what the pithy phrase meant, I came to see it meant shifting something about how I write and, I guess, communicate. Before emailing her the draft I remember starting to read it and found myself unable to. I told myself I couldn’t read it for being too close to the material after writing so intently, but I knew the writing didn’t engage. It read like a textbook. When I emailed it to her I noted that I knew the ideas in it were gold but it wasn’t engaging.
Looking back now, after sleeping on it, it dawns on me that I wanted and needed to hear something big. My writing needed something. Why not rule number one?
If anything gets the job done, accountability does and what better way to make yourself accountable than to post publicly about it?
Before going to sleep I found some pages on showing, not telling.
- “Why the “Show Don’t Tell” Mantra WORKS for Nonfiction and Essay Writing Too!“
- “Writing Tips: Show, Don’t Tell“
- Wikipedia even has a page on it: “Show, don’t tell“
- “How to show, when to tell“
- “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell“
- “How to “Show Don’t Tell”“
- “Show, Don’t Tell“
Too much reading? She did suggest to prioritize reading for a while, paying attention to how writers showed instead of telling.
(She even gave me an uncorrected proof of a book from a major publisher by a major agent that had gotten a six-figure advance right in my niche to start researching with. As much as I valued her giving me a model to work from, I confess her giving it to me made me feel like an insider.)
Major life shifts
Only a few days ago I posted about a major shift in my teaching style that surrounding myself with inquiry-driven project-based teachers forced on me. Other major shifts in my life sprang to mind. You’re looking at the start of my next one.
You can help! And benefit.
You read my writing. You’ve read great writing. We both want my writing to improve. Can you suggest one or two ways I could improve it? I welcome emails or responses below.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book