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Show, don’t tell, for more effective writing

by on 11 Feb, 2012

You’ll get more impact if you “show” readers what you mean rather than “tell” or describe.

Compare these two sentences:

The young man was clearly extremely drunk.

The boy lurched from side to side across the pavement, spilling beer from his pint glass with every step.

The first one tells you; the second draws a picture.

Journalists know this trick. In his firsthand account of the Syrian uprising in The Guardian, writer Martin Chulov starts by telling but moves swiftly to show us what is happening.

Fiction writers are well aware of  this maxim, as Sue Healy shows in her blog on craft tips for writers.

Showing can take many forms. It can mean giving the detail that allows the reader to understand what is happening, as in this description for supporters of how Christian Aid has responded to floods in Pakistan:

Over the past year, our work has included:

• providing food parcels for 17,000 families.

• distributing emergency shelters to 40,000 people, including sturdy ‘winterised’ tents or plastic sheeting.

• distributing household kits, including items such as cooking equipment, blankets and mosquito nets  to 17,000 families.

• distributing nearly 30,000 hygiene kits that provided vital care to people at risk from health issues caused by the flooding.

• building 63 permanent, brick built houses for families whose homes were washed away in the floods.

• providing three-month construction training courses for 900 young men to enable them to become welders, masons, plumber, electricians or carpenters.

So when you need to get a message across, think about the best way “show ” your reader what you mean.

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