Writing is like painting
Fine art that is. There are some key similarities. I started painting watercolors years back. And in my youthful enthusiasm I over-detailed everything in my landscapes. My paintings wound up looking surrealistic. I had to learn to backoff in certain areas.
One key lesson
It can be a serious mistake to paint every area in a painting in sharp focus. Now if a painter is into photo-realism that’s not true. But I find I get quickly bored looking at paintings that imitate photos because everything is spelled out for me. It can also be tiresome because of all that detail. And there’s not much to do beyond admiring the technique.
So I learned to leave some things for the viewer to do. Some areas in the painting that challenge her to ask, “What is that?” A little creative visual interpretation work for her. That’s not mean or purposefully cryptic but instead engaging. The viewer becomes co-creator of the painting experience and the resulting emotion is more powerful.
Writing is like that too
Telling the reader everything she is supposed to get from your text can be insulting to her intelligence. Inviting her to witness the body language of the characters in a story is more powerful than telling her about them.
Telling: Marjorie was angry, disgusted and feed up. She threw down the manuscript and left the room.
Showing: Marjorie’s face lit up like a red-neon light. I could see the pulse throbbing in side of her throat. She grabbed the manuscript and threw it on the floor and stomped out of the room, glaring at me all the way.
Which example above worked better for you? Which painted a more vivid picture? Which convinced you?
Showing verses telling pertains to nonfiction writing too.
Granted there is a lot more telling in nonfiction writing than in fiction. But it is all-too-easy to tell too much, provide too much detail, too many explanations because we’re afraid that the reader won’t get it.
Don’t Spoon-feed the Reader
A couple years ago a writing instructor, critiquing one of my pieces of writing, came right out and told me: “You’re spoon-feeding the reader!” She was right. In my eagerness to make my writing clear I was explaining too much.
The line between showing and telling is thinner with Nonfiction
It’s a judgment call. What helps is having a clear idea of who your intended reader is keeping that reader in mind as you write. Then ask yourself questions like “What does she need to read next to get my meaning?”
How do you show and not just tell with nonfiction?
Instead of just giving your opinion, you cite statistics, give case studies, provide analogies, tell anecdotes, quote an authority, relate your personal experience.
Telling is easy.
Certainly showing is harder work than telling. Telling is seductive because it’s easy. Opinions are cheap. It’s like using the first word that comes to mind, rather than pausing to consider finding a verb with more punch or that specific noun makes your writing sizzle.
The effort can pay big dividends in reader involvement and enjoyment of our writing.
Just last evening I read one of A. Victoria Mixon’s posts (link below). She pointed out, regarding contemporary fiction, that there is a lot of exposition, way too much telling that seems to be a current trend:
Fiction lives and breathes through scenes.
So, as the greats have been saying for over a hundred years: “Show, don’t tell.”
And nonfiction stays alive that way too.
Your turn: What do you think about showing verses telling?