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How to "Show, Don't Tell" to Boost Your Writing for School and Beyond

Your English teacher probably advised you to "show, don't tell" in your writing. But what does that even mean? Here's a quick explanation (with examples)!

There are certain things writing teachers say too often. “Wrong word” is one you’ll hear (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: If I had a nickel for every time I heard “show, don’t tell,” I could easily retire. What does that even mean?! It’s writing. It’s a story—everything is words, which implies telling. Right? So why do teachers, writing coaches, tutors, and bloggers (yes, even me) keep telling you to do it? We keep telling you because it will honestly elevate your writing. But if no one ever explained it to you, your friendly neighborhood Writing major is here to help.

What does show, don't tell mean?

Show, don’t tell means using figurative language and strong word choice to create a visual in the mind of your reader. If you’ve ever read a story where you feel like you disappear into the 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 and potentially personal experiences.

How to master this technique

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 need to meet a specific word count—like the 250–650 words you’re allotted with your college essay—adjectives and adverbs can sometimes be wasted words. Save yourself words by finding the exact right word rather than an almost-perfect word that needs qualification. For example, instead of adding a modifier to red with descriptions like deep, light, or dark, open your Crayola box and find the precise shade. Don’t qualify your emotions either—use those fancy SAT vocabulary words to your advantage. Here is a comparison of an example passage written in two ways, one that tells and one that shows:

  • 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 about my acting premiere. My brain scrambled for my lines. I was parched, my palms clammy. The lights boiled the stage and erased the audience. My voice quivered, but the show must go on, I thought! (39 words)

If you can’t think of a better word for what you want to say, use a thesaurus, but just make sure it means what you think it means, and don’t use language you wouldn’t normally use to sound more intelligent. Both mistakes could ruin your essay.

Related: How to Write a Strong and Unique Application Essay That Works for You

Utilizing comparisons

If finding the right words is a bit of a struggle, or what you’re trying to describe is kind of indescribable, try using comparisons to solidify that imagery. The most common forms of comparison are similes and metaphors. Similes compare one thing to another using like or as, while metaphors compare one thing to another without either. For example:

  • Simile: Stepping on the beach was like walking on hot coals as we searched for a place to relax.
  • Metaphor: The rocks were a pit of hot coals as we searched for a place on the beach to relax.

A great way to show, not tell in your application essay is to use an extended metaphor. This is a comparison that you make for longer than just a sentence. A strong extended metaphor can make a great opening to your essay.

  • Extended metaphor: Memory lane is a minefield. The landscape looks peaceful—innocent—and you think it’s fine to meander. But this is where it happened. “That was ages ago,” you think, so you press on. Then…boom! Your day is ruined.

You can even weave references to that metaphor throughout the essay and bring it back in your concluding paragraph to tie the whole piece together.

Related: 7 Tips to Boost Your Writing for Homework and Essays

Evoking the senses

Your college essays and writing in general should convey the five senses in a way that your reader can almost feel, see, smell, taste, or hear what you’re writing. Use powerful vocabulary to help you reach the reader’s imagination. Almost everyone is familiar with the smell of fresh-cut grass or what common foods like strawberries taste like. We’ve all had similar 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 to them.

  • Example: The scent of 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 in between my front teeth as I bit in. The center was still gooey but the edges were crispy. My eyes closed as I took another bite.

Related: English Grammar Cheat Sheet for Students

Some final advice

Show, don’t tell is great advice for all kinds of writing. 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. He was obviously excited I was home.

If a sentence needs the words “needless to say” or “obviously,” you likely don’t need to say it. 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 extended examples of good admission essays? Check out our three-part series of real student essays that got them admitted into college!

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About Kara E. Joyce

Kara E. Joyce is an editor and writer who frequently contributes to CollegeXpress. When she isn’t hunched over editing material, you can find her powerlifting in the gym, pirouetting in a dance studio, or planning her next adventure.

 

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