How College Applicants Can Go Beyond 'Show Don't Tell'

"Show Don't Tell" has become less a piece of advice and more of a slogan. Students who haven't been taught to think deeply about writing might have heard it and still not know what it means.
09/15/2014 12:56 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

One of the most unavoidable pieces of advice about college-essay writing is, "show, don't tell." This slogan appears, in various forms, on English-class blackboards, on college counselors' blogs, and in some of the most august writing manuals ever written. With due respect to E.B. White, your English teacher, and many colleges (like this one), this adage can be woefully limiting.

"Show Don't Tell" has become less a piece of advice and more of a slogan. Students who haven't been taught to think deeply about writing might have heard it and still not know what it means. To illustrate "telling" and "showing" I'll use an inconsequential story about baseball. (In real life, applicants should generally avoid sports essays.)

The "Tell" Version

I hit a home run yesterday. I've never felt so good in my life. My teammates finally appreciated me, because it won the game, and I'm glad all the hard work paid off. I realized what it meant to succeed.

Think about whether the two seconds you spent on this collection of vague generalities was worth your time. Do you understand what the writer is saying? Do you understand the words "good," "appreciated," "glad," "hard work," or "succeed"? Is it thought-provoking? Do you care?

The "Show" Version

We were tied, 4-4, in the ninth inning with barely enough sunlight for another at-bat. I looked at a strike. On the next pitch, I tightened my core, swung the bat low, and felt it make contact in the middle of the ball. I was almost to second base by the time it crashed into the scoreboard beyond the right-field fence. My teammates greeted me at home plate with the obligatory dogpile.

Now think about what's better about this version. Is it more understandable? More relatable? More interesting? More credible? Most readers would say so. It's not The Natural, but at least qualifies as a real story.

"Showing" requires imagery and specificity. It takes what the writer perceives with his senses and uses words that enable the reader to visualize, understand, and, ideally, empathize. In this version, we have information (the score), a setting (sunset), visceral feelings (tightened core muscles), and an account of the ball's trajectory. We also "see" the jubilation of the teammates.

That's nice, as far as it goes. But, remember, I asked a few questions about the "tell" version. The most important ones are not addressed.

As excited as the kid is, does the "show" version make you care? Does the essay make you think? Doubtful. It's a description of an event that happens all the time, everywhere from Little League fields to Yankee Stadium. Showing isn't enough to make anyone (other than his teammates) care about this story. We don't learn anything about baseball or teenagers that we don't already know.

The "Show, Don't Tell" adage needs to take a cue from its grade-school namesake. Unless a story is so extraordinary that an unadorned narrative can stand on its own, good writing often requires both showing and telling. "Telling" gets a bad reputation because, when done badly, it devolves into vague assertions. In the "telling" example above, the author asserts how he feels ("glad," "good") and the reader is meant take the writer's word for it. But his assertions can't generate empathy when the reader isn't predisposed to care.

"Showing" gains favor because too many curricula require students to absorb information but are too condescending to expect students to think for themselves. But that's exactly what they should do.

Analysis entails a discussion of reasons, consequences, processes, and connections to meaningful ideas. Students do this with literature all the time. You pick a theme -- even a shopworn example like the "American dream" will do -- and you use the story to think about the pros and cons of that theme. Then the reader can decide how compelling your take on the American dream is. The only difference with a college essay is that they are their own protagonist.

Here's an "analysis" version that could be appended to the "showing" version (I'm ignoring would-be word limits):

Last year, a swing like that would have been unthinkable. No matter how much time I spent at the gym doing workout routines from the Men's Fitness app and using a Fitbit, nothing worked. All the while, I ignored Coach Jones. I figured a 75-year-old assistant coach couldn't help me.

One day Coach Jones pulled me aside. He told me that baseball wasn't about fancy workout routines or technology - it was about working hard. That's what he did when he was in high school. Baseball was the same game then. He got me doing pushups, sit-ups, and sprints -- by the dozen, and then by the score. It worked. I may be growing up in the digital age, but baseball is played on a field, not on a tablet or a phone. I just needed some old-fashioned advice.

This version isn't great, but it's the right idea. It marries a banal baseball story with ideas about technology and ageism that a reader can relate to and contemplate. That's the analysis: he's telling the reader why the story might be important. Then, of course, the reader gets to decide whether the ideas are actually important.

Of course, analysis is not easy, just as narration is not easy. But any student can write a great analysis, especially if the topic is intimate and biographical, if she puts her mind to it. She just has to start by asking herself the right questions about the story she is "showing." Students who succeed might just get told that they're admitted.