Last Updated: Oct 1, 2019
There are certain things writing teachers say too often. “Wrong word” is one (with no indication of what might be the right word); “build the tension” is another; “perfect” is rarely, if ever, used. But there’s one thing teachers say more than anything, and if I had a nickel for every time I heard “show, don’t tell,” I could easily retire.
Show, don’t tell—what does that even mean?! It’s writing. It’s a story—everything is words, which implies telling. So why do teachers, writing coaches, tutors, and bloggers (yes, even me) keep telling you to do it? And why don’t they explain it?
We keep telling you to “show, don’t tell” in your writing because it will honestly elevate it. And we don’t explain it because no one explained it to us. Your friendly neighborhood Writing major is here to stop that cycle though.
What does it mean?
“Show, don’t tell” means you should use figurative language and strong word choice to create a visual in the mind of your reader. If you’ve ever read a book or short story where you feel like you disappear into that world, that author has mastered this practice. When you “show” in your writing, especially in poignant pieces like your college admission essay, you’re helping the reader live vicariously through your writing.
How do you do it?
The right stuff
One of the easiest ways to show, don’t tell is to make sure you’re using the most descriptive words possible. I don’t mean overloading on adjectives and adverbs—in fact, don’t. When you have to meet a specific word count—like the 250–650 words you’re allotted with your college essay—adjectives and adverbs can be wasted words. That’s not to say you should never use them, but try to find a word that will say what you’re thinking without them first.
Save yourself words by finding the exact right word rather than an almost-perfect word that needs a qualification. For example, instead of modifying a basic color with descriptions like deep, light, or dark, open your Crayola box and find the precise shade. Don’t qualify your emotions either. Teachers have been forcing SAT vocabulary on you for a while now. Use those fancy words to your advantage.
"Telling" example: I felt really scared the first time I appeared onstage for a high school play. I was very nervous I would forget my lines. My mouth was really dry, and my palms were super sweaty. The lights made the stage really hot, and I couldn’t see the audience very well. I still tried my best on my performance. (58 words)
"Showing" example: I was terrified for my acting premiere. My brain scrambled for my lines. I was parched, my palms clammy. The lights boiled the stage and disappeared the audience. My voice quivered, but the show must go on! (37 words)
If you can’t think of a better word for what you want to say, feel free to use a thesaurus, but double-check the word in the dictionary to make sure it means what you think it means, and don’t use language you wouldn’t normally use to sound more intelligent. Both of these mistakes could ruin your essay.
If finding the right words is a bit of a struggle, or what you’re trying to describe is kind of indescribable, try a comparison to solidify that imagery. The most common forms of comparisons are similes and metaphors. Similes compare one thing to another using like or as, while metaphors compare one thing to another without like or as. For example:
Simile: Stepping on the beach was like walking on hot coals as we searched for a place to relax.
Metaphor: The sand was fire as we searched for a place on the beach to relax.
A great way to “show, not tell” in your application essay? Use an extended metaphor. This is a comparison that you use for longer than a sentence. A strong extended metaphor can make a great opening to your essay. You can even try to weave slight references to that metaphor into your essay or bring the idea back in your concluding paragraph to tie the whole piece together.
Example: Memory lane is a minefield. The landscape looks peaceful—innocent—and you think it’s fine to meander. But halfway through, you remember this is where it happened, whatever it was. “That was ages ago,” you think, so you press on. Then…boom! Your day is ruined.
Related: 15 Mind-Blowing College Essay Tips
Evoke the senses
Obviously, it’s not possible for admission counselors to physically feel, see, smell, taste, or hear what you’re writing. However, your essay can still convey the five senses in a way that your reader can almost sense them. Use powerful vocabulary to help you reach that part of the reader’s imagination.
Almost everyone is familiar with the smell of fresh-cut grass, and a lot of people know what common foods like strawberries taste like. We’ve all had experiences like papercuts, so it’s easy to imagine them. Though not all readers can physically replicate the sensation, they’ll be able to relate.
Example: Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies wafted through the air. I floated into the kitchen nose first. I gingerly picked up a cookie, singeing my fingertips. Chocolate oozed onto my lips and front teeth as I bit in. The center was still gooey, a little undercooked, but the edges were crispy. My eyes closed as I took another bite.
“Show, don’t tell” is great advice for both academic and admission essays. Just make sure you don’t show and tell. Just like overusing descriptors, explaining a paragraph you just wrote is a waste of your words.
Example: Sparky barked when I walked in the door. He was in my arms the next second, nuzzling my hands and licking my face. I tried to scratch behind his ears, but Sparky was zipping around too much for me to do anything. Mom told him to sit, but he ignored her in favor of pouncing on me again. He was obviously excited I was home.
If you can start a sentence with “needless to say” or “obviously,” you likely don’t need to say it. It’s probably obvious, like the fact that the dog is excited. That descriptive language you used has already told the reader what they need to know, so you don’t have to spell it out for them. Make sure you look out for this in your writing and not just the more long-winded forms of telling over showing.
Looking for more ways to hone your essay-writing skills? Check out our Application Essay Clinic articles!