Show, don’t tell

March 4, 2014 by Joshua
in Art, Creativity, Tips

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.

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

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4 responses on “Show, don’t tell

  1. One of the greatest concepts I have learned is the importance of the root metaphor in storytelling. It acts as a frame of reference, a bridge of sorts, to link the writer’s internal thoughts and ideas to something familiar, allowing the reader to attach and build flesh upon the bones of a shared idea. I envision it as the union of a Venn diagram- where two separate sets become a shared entity. Its the sweet spot where I am invited into your creative process, and actively create with you. Can you see it?

    • I see the Venn diagram where the writer’s and reader’s perspectives overlap but I don’t see why you’d call that area a root, unless I’m missing something. Can you give an example of the concept in practice?

  2. ‘The root I was alluding to here is not of mathematical derivation; but narrative, relating to the metaphor, as determined by Steven Pepper. It is a sort of work-veiw as related to your writing, where a common sense fact is used as a “frame” to relate other like ideas to the main metaphor.
    For example:
    I have been thinking much about conciousness. If I use the root metaphor of conciousness as a “seed”, I can then build related ideas about a seed into my world-veiw about that fill in the flesh to my metaphoric seed skeleton. Such as from the “field” of consciousness I can “plant” the seed of my wishes or intentions. I can at that time focus my awareness and attention that “fertilizes” this seed and have the flexibility of mindfulness and awareness to “harvest” all options that I may not have expected the “crop” to yeild.
    Using this writing technique allows the reader to participate in your tale, identify with you while you tell the story, and at the same time, have the ability to imagine and create how their seed can be a part of your garden. (sorry…couldn’t help myself…) All three parts of the Venn. Just my thoughts.

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