Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services
Compare these two passages:
- I looked at him one day and realized that I loved him.
- I looked at him one day, and he was tying his shoes, really concentrating hard, like a little kid, with the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth. He was completely unaware of anything but just tying that shoe. "I love you," I told him, and was shocked to realize that I meant it.
Both passages describe the same event: the moment when the narrator realized she loved this guy.
In the first passage, the narrator just tells you what happened. In the second, the narrator shows you what happened.
In the first passage, the narrator stands in front of the event, blocking it from your view. You can’t see around her. You just have to take her word for the event. In the second, you can see (sort of) how the narrator came to the conclusion that she loved him; you can see the event unfold because the narrator is showing it to you.
Showing and telling are two very different ways of conveying information, and each has advantages. Telling doesn’t take up as much space on the page as showing, while showing provides the reader with supporting evidence for the claim being made, strengthening that claim. Showing provides details; telling sums up their meaning.
Showing/telling are important skills for the academic writer as well as for the creative writer. Compare these two passages from an expository essay—an essay intended to inform:
- Dogs are bred for very different uses.
- Hounds are bred for tracking and hunting. Terriers are bred for killing. Herders, as their name implies, are skilled in moving large numbers of domestic animals from place to place. Retrievers assist hunters by fetching downed birds.
The first passage simply tells you something about dog breeds: it makes a general claim about why there are so many of them. The second passage shows some different breeds and their uses.
In an academic essay, “showing” means “providing illustrative examples and supporting details.” Note that if you took the above passages and put them together, you would have a brief but well-organized and informative paragraph:
Dogs are bred for very different uses. Hounds are bred for tracking and hunting. Terriers are bred for killing. Herders, as their name implies, are skilled in moving large numbers of domestic animals from place to place. Retrievers assist hunters by fetching downed birds.
Not all essays are written simply to inform. Some are written to take a position on a controversial issue and persuade the reader that this position is correct. Compare these two passages:
- Experimentation on animals should continue to be allowed to further medical research.
- Computer models still do not provide enough testing information for medical research. Animal experimentation can be conducted humanely with minimal suffering. Humans and other animals are not equal in moral importance.
The first passage stakes the writer’s position in the animal testing controversy. The second passage lists specific reasons for taking that position: Each reason shows the reader why the writer’s position is persuasive. Together, the first and second passage make the writer’s ideas clear.
Experimentation on animals should continue to be allowed to further medical research. Computer models still do not provide enough testing information for medical research. Animal experimentation can be conducted humanely with minimal suffering. Humans and other animals are not equal in moral importance.
In each of these academic paper examples, the “telling” sentence could function as the topic sentence of the paragraph; the “showing” sentences illustrate and support the claim made by the topic sentence. Note, too, that each of these passages could function as a thesis, preparing the reader for the purpose of an essay as well as the order and focus of its body paragraphs.
In order to write effectively, you need to do both things: to make general claims of fact (or statements of your position on a controversial topic) and to support those claims (or that position) with supporting evidence, showing your reader what your general claim means (or why the reader should agree).
So: Telling without showing is not sufficiently enlightening nor persuasive. Showing without telling burdens the reader with details and arguments without explaining what they mean. Whatever your purpose for writing—whether you’re writing a short story, or a research paper about the Horsehead Nebula, or an essay arguing the abolition of beauty pageants—take care to both show and tell.