Show don’t Tell – A writer’s rule, a rule for life

One of the oldest maxims of writing is Show don’t Tell. Rather than tell the reader what is happening in a scene, use imagery and dialogue to create the same effect. For example,


He felt nervous. The interviewer was five minutes late.


His eyes darted from the door to the giant sixtieth floor window overlooking downtown. He rubbed his sweaty palms on his pant legs under the conference table. “When is this bloody interview going to start,” he whispered to himself.

The second paragraph engages the reader’s senses and paints a picture. It evokes an emotion. The first is the e-mail your boss sends you when they’re running between meetings. Wait, huh?

In life, if you’re struggling to persuade or motivate others to do something, to demonstrate a particular behavior, you will have a lot more luck showing them how, rather than telling them how, to get their act together.

Telling carries a whiff of condescension. In a book, telling the reader often insults their intelligence. It says “You’re not smart enough to figure this out on your own.” Telling an employee, co-worker, friend or family member how to do something makes you look like you think you’re the authority on a topic. And maybe you are. But people by nature hate being talked down to. That’s telling.

Telling can also be a sign of laziness. In the above example, the first paragraph took a few seconds to write. The second a couple minutes. Showing takes effort, so it’s not surprising that in our busy lives that we do a lot more telling. My question is: How’s that working for ya?

Tell a four year old to clean up his toys and you’ll be lucky to get compliance. Show that same boy how someone could step on that dreaded stray Lego and be incapacitated the rest of the day 😉 and you’ll get better cooperation.

People need to come to conclusions on their own. Then they buy in. That takes showing. Become a writer in your everyday life: Show don’t Tell.

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