What makes colorful writing?
The first writing advice I ever received was this: “Show; don’t tell.” Let’s look at why this is good advice and how to follow it.
In fiction writing we want the reader to visualize the story. Read this sentence: Samantha tried to navigate the stone path. Sufficient but boring.
Let’s revise the sentence to make it show more: Holding her black stilettos in one hand and her pale pink shawl in the other, Samantha descended the icy stone path one slow step at a time. Can you picture Samantha? This is the beauty of showing, not telling.
So what about nonfiction writing? Do we need to “show, not tell”? We need both showing writing and telling writing.
Much nonfiction writing is expository writing. That means we are telling our reader about a topic. Showing writing is needed to further illuminate the expository information and to bring it to life.
Think of showing writing as a way to add color to the black and white of the telling parts.
Let’s look at five ways to show, not tell.
Show with descriptive writing
Nonfiction writing often includes elements of descriptive writing.
Here’s an example from Michele Cushatt’s Undone:
“When Tyler graduated from high school, the year before cancer, I cried. Not a sweet, tender, ‘isn’t she precious?’ cry. The sloppy, drippy, hyperventilating kind.”
The first sentence in the above example is the telling part, where Michele tells us she cried. The second sentence is the showing part where we picture exactly what kind of crying.
Descriptive writing includes adjectives to help the reader visualize and punchy verbs that say exactly what the writer intends. Using a thesaurus can help you here.
Show with stories
My favorite way to “show; don’t tell” is to include a personal story illustrating the telling part of writing. Stories show the reader how to put into practice the writing’s principles, or they can provide a concrete example for an abstract concept.
Here’s an example from Lysa TerKeurst’s Uninvited. She tells a story about her fear of completing a ropes course and then goes on to tie that into the chapter’s topic of trust.
Her ropes course guide addresses her fear by saying, “Lysa, this isn’t about finishing the ropes course. This is about conquering your hesitance, resistance, and fear. These ropes holding you will only let you slightly drop if you miss the bar. Then they will catch, and you absolutely will not fall.”
What a visual for the word “trust.” And then she tells how this story ties into trust.
Along with using personal stories, one of my favorite writing practices is to elicit stories from others. Of course, ask their permission to use their story in your writing.
Show by sharing a list of examples
Like a story but more abbreviated, an easy way to show with your writing is to include a list of examples. Look at this excerpt from my book, What a Wife Needs from Her Husband.
“Here are some ideas for showing your wife kindness:
- Do a household chore your wife would normally do.
- Say please and thank you. Make manners a priority.
- Commit to God and to your wife that you will never speak critically about her to others.”
I included lists at the end of each subheading. You can also include a list at the end of a chapter.
Show by using quotations from other sources
Quotations illuminate the telling part of your writing.
Susie Larson in Your Sacred Yes writes about basing our self-worth on God’s Word. She writes these telling sentences: “You are mighty in God! You don’t have to put up with the constant plague of insecurity and inferiority.”
Then she shows the reader more by using a quotation: “Dr. Greg Smalley often says when counseling others, ‘People aren’t the source of truth. They may speak the truth, or they may lie to you…God is the only source of truth.’”
Your quotations might be something you heard, something you read, or a fact you found when researching.
Show by including Scripture
When writing nonfiction, we’ll summarize passages of Scripture and God’s principles, but we can’t forget the power of including Scripture word-for-word. For example, if we’re telling about finding freedom in Christ, we can include a Scripture that shows that truth, such as John 8:36. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” The light of God’s Word can illuminate expository writing.
Choose one of your manuscripts or portion of one to evaluate for showing and telling writing. You’re probably already including several of these examples, but which can you add to bring more color to your writing?
Melanie Chitwood is the author of two marriage books, What a Husband Needs from His Wife and What a Wife Needs from Her Husband. She’s a writing coach and editor at Next Step Coaching Services where she helps other writers make their dreams come true.