How to Neither Show Nor Tell in Your Writing

Let’s set the record straight right here at the start: This post is inspired by a McSweeney’s essay by Colin Nissan titled, “The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do.” In it we learn that “writing is a muscle” and a laptop is “a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals.” We are also told to “[b]eware of muses who promise unrealistic timelines for your projects or who wear wizard clothes.”

So clearly you’re going to be in good hands with the advice I’ll provide in this post.

They tell me The Artist’s Road is a blog for writers, yet I’ve never provided my readers with any writing exercises. That changes today! My inspiration? This passage from the McSweeney’s essay:

“Mark Twain once said, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ This is an incredibly important lesson for writers to remember; never get such a giant head that you feel entitled to throw around obscure phrases like ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Thanks for nothing, Mr. Cryptic.”

Let me say, with the authority of a blogger with awards in his blog’s right column, that Twain was wrong. Sure, plenty of writing blogs tell us to show, not tell. A few are even braver, telling us to tell, not show. And the occasional blogger, who clearly is high on himself, will tell us to show and tell.

I’ll be returning in December to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for my fourth MFA in Writing residency. But what can they possibly teach me, when I know more than Mark Twain?

I say don’t show, and don’t tell.

Are you ready for your writing exercise? Good. Find a blank sheet of paper. No lines or perforations, please, not even a watermark. Now find a pen. Make sure the ink doesn’t leak. Now, for the next five minutes, hold the pen six inches above the paper, then put it down.

Are you finished? Let’s look at what you’ve written. Well done!

The late composer John Cage would have turned 100 this year. He is perhaps most famous for his composition 4’33”, in which the orchestra sits silently for four-and-a-half minutes, and the performance is the sound of discomfort found in the audience. Take a look at the sheet music for this composition. See the beauty in those blank musical staffs? You too have just produced a masterpiece of absence.

Show your new work to friends, and ask them what they take away from the experience. Every reader will have a unique reaction true to their being. Isn’t that our goal as writers, to speak directly to each individual reader? You’ve done it today!

Be sure to return to The Artist’s Road again next week, when we explore the possibilities of writing only with the keyboard’s home keys.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

29 Responses to “How to Neither Show Nor Tell in Your Writing”

  1. I think I have done this exercise a number of times🙂. Bravo!

  2. Now that’s certainly a new take on things. Thought provoking to say the least. In this noisy world we forget that sometimes saying nothing makes the biggest statement. Thanks

  3. Patrick… is that you? Sounds like you’ve just returned from a Zen comedians bootcamp. And I want to sign up! We all need turning on our heads. I remember, once, sitting with a novel, and I decided to just stare at the page without actually reading. I was watching my organizm in the act of sitting there with a book. For half an hour. Very stressful. Then silence. It’s also kinda like the photographer who sets up a shot, then turns the camera 180 degrees and snaps the shutter. Anything to knock us out of our habitual old habits. Great post.

    • Hi PJ! You and Terri (below) have reminded me that I haven’t been including enough humor in my posts. I actually have a humor-writing background, but I’m so darned earnest in this blog that it doesn’t always have a chance to come out. Glad it was welcomed by one of my best readers!

  4. .

  5. Just the inspiration I needed to get some work done today.🙂

  6. This is so different from your typical blogging “voice” — at least what I’ve been reading since April or so. “…a masterpiece of absence.” Love it! This is probably a practice many of us should adhere to from time to time.

  7. Reblogged this on Zellie M. Quinn.

  8. It sounds like the guru who came to give a talk, and sat in silence for half an hour, and then people were asked what they’d been feeling. The roof nearly came off with their anger, which was the whole idea!
    Silence is a complex experience!

  9. I took it as reverse psychology, you force yourself not to write🙂 Perfect cure for writers block, Thanks!

  10. Actually, the Cage was written for piano, and rather than intending to make the audience uncomfortable, the object was to teach people that sound is always around us but we don’t listen to it. In a similar vein, when the reader reads the blank page, the reader’s mind won’t be blank, but each reader will bring something different to the page just as they would if there were words.

    Telling is fine in superb hands, but I think Twain’s advice was perfect for almost all writers. Telling makes for horrible writing.

  11. Wow, that’s the fastest novel I’ve ever written

  12. My first reaction was supplied by Corey and deftly you responded. But like all things I found the rest of the comments added new twists to my turned around state.
    so clearly you were following twain’s advice to the letter and threw mcSweeney’s advice to the wind. To Valerie’s point and a nod to John Cage, it’s not just silence that’s complex emptiness, gaps or blank anything! The social community here made me buckle
    Bravo indeed!

  13. So well done, Patrick. Thanks – and yes, keep the light/humorous voice alive and public. Just why do we tend to be so s-e-r-i-o-u-s in our blogging? The nagging thought you might not be taken, um, SERIOUSLY? Well, I’m seriously delighted with this post and look forward to many more.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What Would You Like to See on The Artist’s Road? | The Artist's Road - December 20, 2012

    […] Humor: I fear that in my effort to be earnest and honest, I’ve been less inclined to reveal my humorous side. But I roll it out occasionally, from Mr. Bacon blogging from the National Book Festival to how to neither show nor tell in your writing. […]

  2. A Pearl of Wisdom for Fiction Writers | The Artist's Road - May 2, 2013

    […] With far less brilliance than the prose of Eliot or Epstein, last year I wrote a satirical post arguing writes should neither show nor tell. […]

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