August 10:  Show Me Day

On this date in 1821, Missouri was admitted to the union as the 24th state. Originally a part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Missouri achieved statehood as a slave state. It was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that settled the controversy about admitting Missouri as a slave state, by admitting Maine as a free state (1).

Known as the “Show Me” state, Missouri’s unofficial slogan is the stuff of legend. The story goes that Missouri’s U.S. Congressman Williard Duncan Vandiver coined the slogan at a 1899 naval banquet in Philadelphia where he said:

I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me (2).

“Show Me” is only the unofficial motto of Missouri, however.  The official state motto is Latin: Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto (“Let the Welfare of the People Be the Supreme Law”). In fact, more than half of states in the union have mottoes in languages other than English (3).

When it comes to applying words to the page, all writers should think of Missouri and Vandiver’s demand to be shown rather than told.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, good writers craft their sentences with concrete details and imagery.  Like Vandiver’s “corn and cotton and cockleburs,” good writers watch out for focusing too much on abstract language by including plenty of concrete nouns and vivid verbs.

The two words “for example” are possibly the two most important words in a writer’s lexicon.  These two words remind writers to support the abstract with the concrete, to balance the general with the specific, and not just to tell the reader, but also to show the reader with specific, detailed examples.

The following are other transitional expressions you can use to signal the reader that you are going to show rather than just tell:

for instance

to illustrate

such as

to demonstrate

an example of this is

specifically

Notice how each of the following examples uses one of the previous signal expressions to connect the gap between general, telling statement and specific, showing examples:

Americans love their dogs.  For example, more than 80 percent of dog owners say that they would risk their life for their dog.

Computers have come a long way.  To illustrate, today’s musical greeting car is more powerful than the world’s most powerful computer was sixty years ago.

Today’s Challenge:  Tell Me, But Also Show Me
What examples would you give to support or refute the following generalization:  “Life today is much more hectic than it was fifty years ago”?Select one of the three general telling statements below and either support or refute it with specific showing examples, details and evidence:

Life today is much more hectic than it was fifty years ago.

Technology has made communications today much more effective than it was fifty years ago.

Hard work and diligent effort are often much more valuable than relying solely on good luck.  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”–Anton Chekhov

 

1 – The Library of Congress. American Memory. “Today in History: August 10.” http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/aug10.html

2 – Missouri Secretary of State’s Officehttp://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/history/slogan.asp

3 – U.S. State Mottos –http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._state_mottos

 

January 29: Show and Tell Day

Today is the birthday of Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).  Chekhov began writing as a way to support his family when he was a teenager, selling stories to newspapers.  Although he is today recognized as one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, Chekhov’s first love was medicine.  He described his relationship with medicine and writing with an apt metaphor:  “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.”  Unfortunately Chekhov had barely started his career as a doctor when he contracted tuberculosis, which took his life when he was just 44 years old.

Chekhov seated at a deskOften a prescription for good writing is to “show, don’t tell.”  This is great advice, and the three-word maxim is an excellent example of concise writing; however, the irony of “show, don’t tell” is that the statement itself does more telling than showing.  For a better, more illustrative version of this advice we can turn to a quotation that’s often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Here we have an example of the kind of concrete language that creates a picture in the reader’s mind.  Concrete language engages the reader’s senses, allowing the reader to see, hear, feel, smell, and/or taste vicariously.

Although the “glint of light” quotation is consistently attributed to Chekhov, an investigation by Garson O’Toole has determined that it’s more of a paraphrase than a direct quotation.  At his website www.quoteinvestigator.com, O’Toole reports that the source of the quotation is a letter that Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander in May 1886.  As we can see by Chekhov’s advice to his brother, sensory imagery is a must:

In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball (1).

Too often writers don’t follow Chekhov’s advice.  It’s okay to talk about abstract ideas like love, war, freedom, or failure, but to truly show and to truly evoke images, the writer must use concrete language that engages the reader’s five senses.  This is the type of language that creates a dominant impression the mind of the reader.  

For example, notice how the two passages below both go far beyond telling the reader that “war is an oppressive struggle”; instead, they both show the druggery of war in vivid detail.

Passage 1 is an excerpt from a poem about World War I; Passage 2 is an excerpt from a novel about the Vietnam War:

Passage 1:  “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Passage 2:  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.  They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct.  They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery.  They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.  They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky.

Today’s Challenge:  Show Me the Details

How can you support a generalization with strong imagery and sensory details that create a showing picture for your reader?  Support a telling generalization with specific showing details that make a dominant impression on the reader.  Use sensory language that engage your reader’s senses, by including details that the reader can see, hear, feel, taste, and/or smell.

Learning a new skill can be difficult.

Persistence is an essential trait for successful people.

Failure is often a springboard for success.

Procrastination is a major problem for students.

Summer is the best time of the year.

Quotation of the Day:  When you show people something, you are trusting them to make up their minds for themselves.  Readers like to be trusted.  Don’t dictate to them what they are supposed to see, or think, or feel.  Let them see the person, situation, or thing you are describing, and they will not only like what you have written, they will like you for trusting them. -Gary Provost

1-http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/30/moon-glint/